Paramedics in hazmat gear examine the travel documents of a passenger at a checkpoint along the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. Photo: China News Service

Beijing is mulling expanding its “travel bubble” covering the mainland to include Taiwan, the two former European territories of Hong Kong and Macau as well as South Korea.

The idea is to cut red tape and fast-track health and quarantine checks so people crossing borders within the five jurisdictions have the minimum hassle.

The plan comes as Beijing has rushed to rescue its economy from the beating it has taken from the Covid-19 pandemic, with policymakers doling out loans and stimulus for sectors and lifting barricades and bans to improve the flow of people and goods among its provinces and municipalities.

In early April, Beijing brushed aside opposition from some top health experts and ended a city-wide lockdown on Wuhan, the breeding ground of the highly-infectious disease, and ordered the megacity of 11 million to reboot and shake off the pandemic’s after-effects on its economy.

Top officials have also encouraged people to spend, eased verification and health checks for travel from one province to another, and in most cases, health screening has been reduced to a mere formality.

Now the travel bubble is set to grow.

Governments in China’s southern Guangdong province and in Macau signed a deal this week to spare the army of 20,000 mainland croupiers from two weeks in quarantine when they return to the gambling hub. They only need to get an all-clear from the province’s health authority after nucleic acid tests.

Macau has reopened its gambling industry and the enclave sitting on the edge of Guangdong province has reported no new infections for 35 days and running. The government there is tilting towards scrapping most of the entry restrictions to allow not only workers, but also high-rollers from the affluent mainland neighbor to throw a lifeline to its sprawling but deserted casinos and entertainment complexes.

Guangdong has only two Covid-19 patients who have yet to be discharged with an accumulative caseload of 1,589, according to figures from the National Health Commission.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam also revealed in a recent interview that any relaxations may start with business trips and gradually include professionals and students who have taken up residence in Guangdong, but who must enter the city to work and attend classes.

She said under a deal that was still being worked out with Guangdong and Macau, these people would be qualified for a quarantine waiver, but would need a health certificate.

The Shenzhen Bay Bridge that straddles the water between Hong Kong and mainland China has fallen quiet after both places rushed to slap quarantine orders on arrivals during the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: AFP
Governments across Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau are working on a plan to recognize health certificates issued by the other side for a phased reopening of their borders. Photo: Southern Daily

Both Guangdong and Hong Kong still impose strict quarantine measures on arrivals from the other side. But Hong Kong’s quarantine order targeting anyone entering from mainland China will lapse on June 7, after it was extended for one month as a precaution against any flare-ups.

The expectation is that by then most travel restrictions will be loosened so major border checkpoints can be reopened for two-way flows.

Lam said, however, in the beginning, the governments in Guangdong and Hong Kong prefer a phased reopening of borders and will be prudent in assessing applications and issuing health certificates.

She has also sought to calm the fears of some epidemiologists and opposition lawmakers that resuming two-way, cross-boundary trips would not be a recipe for a fresh wave of imported cases from the mainland.

“I have statistics to back up the decision of a phased reopening in sync with mainland China: there has not been a single confirmed case among the 100,000-plus people entering from the mainland since Hong Kong gazetted the quarantine order on February 8, yet there are 400-plus imported cases – half of which involving students fleeing the epidemic in the United Kingdom – among the 70,000-plus Hongkongers returning from Europe and North America since mid-March,” said Lam.

Her conclusion was that the improving situation across mainland China was borne out by these figures.

Dr Ho Pak-leung, with the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Microbiology, also said that with the contagion steadily receding across the three places, allowing those who had already passed tests to travel freely would unlikely risk a recurrence of the health crisis.

He said officials may have gone too far with their containment measures, given the fact that a traveler may end up being isolated for 28 days for a round trip between Hong Kong and mainland China under the existing regimes on both sides of the border.

Still, a fresh cluster of at least three infections in Hong Kong since Wednesday ended the city’s 23-day run of zero local infections. It remains to be seen if new outbreaks will scupper the plan to form a new travel bubble in Guangdong and Hong Kong.

Both sides have to put a lid on sporadic outbreaks to make sure the bubble will not burst too easily.

Taiwanese businessmen are also lobbying the island’s government to review its entry ban for airlines to operate cross-strait flights on selected routes when their plants on the mainland are resuming production.

The Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office has also been making overtures for discussions on mutual checks and recognition of travelers’ health files and test results, but a quick turnaround from Taipei is unlikely.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said last week that any easing of restrictions would not include mainland China. The island has not seen any new cases for almost one month.

Chinese ambassador Xing Haiming elbow bumps South Koreans heading for China at the launch of an express channel for businessmen and professionals to travel between the two countries. Photo: Yonhap News

Meanwhile, Xinhua reported that express channels for simplified health and immigration checks had been set up at Seoul’s Incheon Airport and 10 airports across China and about 200 Korean engineers and technicians dispatched by Samsung to oversee operations in China became the first batch of foreign nationals exempted from China’s quarantine requirement.

Beijing’s ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming said business travelers, technicians and medical professionals given a clean slate in virus tests would be among the first to benefit from the new scheme, which relies on data-sharing and the mutual recognition of documents.

It was reported that China may seek to replicate the arrangement when looking to restore its business and trade dealings with key partners like Vietnam and Thailand, where the spread of the respiratory disease is also waning.

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