Hong Kong's border with the mainland has been effectively closed since February 2020 due to Covid-19. Photo: Facebook

Quarantine-free travel across the Hong Kong-mainland border may resume as early as next month after the semi-autonomous city decided to further tighten its quarantine rules for incoming diplomatic officers and businessmen and expand the use of its Covid tracing app in moves aimed to better harmonize with China’s strict “zero Covid” policy.

Reopening the border, which if it happens will be implemented in a step-by-step fashion, would be welcome news for many Hong Kong people, who have been required to be isolated for 14 days for mainland travel since February 2020.

Hong Kong’s retail, travel and property sectors will also benefit as mainland tourists will be able to visit the city without being quarantined when returning home.

However, Hong Kong will likely maintain its tough quarantine rules for incoming travelers from foreign countries as the city has failed to boost its vaccination rate above 70%. If those who have received the less effective Sinovac vaccine are excluded, Hong Kong’s vaccination rate is only 37%, far below the 70-80% level that will allow the city to safely adopt a “living with Covid-19” strategy.

Since the Chinese government announced the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province, in late January 2020, the border between Hong Kong and the mainland has remained closed. Cross-border travelers are required to be quarantined at hotels for 14 days.

In the following months, the Chinese government took extreme measures, including the mandatory use of a health code that can track users’ locations, a nationwide Covid testing scheme and strict lockdown measures. Since mid-2020, China has generally achieved its “zero Covid” local infection goal despite the occasional outbreak of scores of cases.

During the past two weeks, mainland China has recorded more than 300 confirmed cases in 14 provinces and regions. On Thursday, 68 local cases were recorded, mostly in the northern part of China, according to the National Health Commission.

As the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is about to hold its sixth plenary session in Beijing between November 8 and 11, authorities have reportedly stopped people from entering the capital for non-essential travel.

Chinese residents queueing to test for Covid-19 in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Last Sunday, about 40,000 tourists and workers at Shanghai Disney were ordered to be tested after a woman who visited the theme park on Saturday tested positive for the virus.

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong government was ordered by Beijing to follow the country’s “zero Covid” strategy. It locked down districts where patients were identified, launched compulsory Covid tests, expanded the use of a mobile app for people to keep their location records, strengthened quarantine requirements for travelers from foreign places and encouraged vaccination.

Over the past six months, Hong Kong has mainly achieved zero local infections, but progress in reopening its border with the mainland has nonetheless lagged.

On November 5, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said large-scale border reopening with the mainland would kick off in February while adding that more good news on the issue would be announced soon.

Lam said that as of recently about 300,000 Hong Kong residents had returned to the city from the mainland without quarantine under the Return2HK scheme and more than 10,000 mainlanders had visited Hong Kong without quarantine under the Come2HK scheme. Mainland visitors have to be isolated for 14 days when they return home, however.

On Thursday, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a statement that Hong Kong had achieved zero local infections with the effort of the SAR government and different communities in the city.

According to the SAR government, health officials in Hong Kong and the mainland held a video conference on Tuesday to discuss the proposed border reopening. Citing unnamed sources, several Hong Kong newspapers reported on Thursday that a trial program, which may allow 1,000 people per week to go to the mainland without quarantine, would start in mid-December.

But a full reopening of the border isn’t necessarily around the corner. On October 25, the Financial Times reported that the Hong Kong-mainland border could remain closed until after the CPC National Congress in November 2022.

The paper reported that it would be politically sensitive if virus outbreaks happened during the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, the chief executive election in March and the 25th anniversary of the Hong Kong SAR government in July.

Although American, European and local business groups have urged the Hong Kong government to ease its quarantine rules for international travel, Lam insisted on making the reopening of the Hong Kong-mainland border her government’s top priority, at the expense of the city’s role as an international business hub.

On November 1, the Hong Kong government further tightened its quarantine rules by requiring consular and diplomatic officers to be quarantined at designated hotels upon arriving in the city.

Only consuls general or representatives in Hong Kong at an equivalent or higher level will be allowed to serve quarantine via home isolation. Earlier exemptions for construction workers who work on the mainland and directors of Hong Kong-listed firms carrying out business in the city will also be canceled. 

The Lo Wu border crossing into Hong Kong is on the right with Shenzhen on the left. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

The government also announced it would expand the use of its Covid tracing app to cover all government buildings and wet markets.

Government advisor on the pandemic David Hui Shu-cheong said Hong Kong was not ready to adopt a “living with Covid-19” strategy. Hui noted that even though Singapore had a vaccination rate of 80%, the city-state had reported several thousand cases daily after it adopted a “living with the virus” strategy in August.

As of the end of last month, about 9.04 million vaccine doses have been administered in Hong Kong. Nearly 4.62 million people have received at least one dose, accounting for 68.6% of the population aged 12 or above, the Health Department said.

Only several thousand people are now being inoculated per day, underscoring the difficulty Hong Kong faces in further boosting its vaccination rate. A total of 4.43 million people, 59% of the population of 7.5 million people, have received a second dose.

Although 2.23 billion doses of vaccines have been administered in mainland China, the Chinese government has recently decided to give a third shot to its people due to the low efficacy of the locally made Sinovac and Sinopharm jabs.

A Beijing Daily article published on October 29 said people who received the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines should get a third shot. Without commenting on whether people had enough antibodies six months after they received the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, the article said an additional Sinovac shot could boost people’s antibody levels by 20 times while an extra Sinopharm shot could double antibody levels.

In July this year, the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health found that people with two shots of the Western-made BioNTech vaccine had average antibody levels of 269 units, representing nine times the level of those with two shots of the Sinovac vaccine.

An expert team under Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection said last week that people who received two Sinovac does and high-risk people who received two doses of the BioNTech vaccine were recommended to get a third shot.

The government said people could freely choose a vaccine for their booster shot. Ivan Hung, the chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the University of Hong Kong, said people who received three shots of the Sinovac vaccine would probably have to get a fourth shot six months later.

Read: HK’s Covid-zero rules killing off business confidence