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

The Hong Kong government said Thursday that tens of thousands of mainlanders would be allowed to visit the city from January 8 but they would have to present negative PCR test results for Covid, instead of rapid-test results.

On December 29, Hong Kong had scrapped pre-departure PCR tests for people coming from the mainland and replaced them with rapid tests completed within 24 hours prior to departure.

However, it said Thursday that incoming mainlanders would have to show a negative Covid result within 48 hours before departure while Hong Kong people returning from the mainland could continue to skip it. It said the arrangement was a part of its efforts to lower the risk of cross-infections.

The decision came after major western countries reintroduced Covid tests for passengers from China due to fear of the country’s sharp increase in Covid infections and possible new variants.

At the same time, Hong Kong officials successfully appealed to the Japanese government over its travel restrictions. Last week, Tokyo limited flights from Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland to four airports in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. But it now allows flights from Hong Kong to land in all airports in Japan, as long as no passengers had been on the mainland within seven days of departure.

Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Eric Chan said he had sent letters to the consuls general of several countries, including the United States and South Korea, to ask them to reconsider and remove the restrictions imposed on Hong Kong’s travelers.

Since January 23, 2020, travel restrictions have been imposed at the borders between Hong Kong and the mainland. In a bid to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland earlier, the Hong Kong government also tightened its quarantine and social distancing rules, which had seriously hit the city’s retail and tourism sectors.

The number of all incoming travelers in Hong Kong fell to 3.57 million in 2020, 93.6% down from 55.91 million in 2019. The number further dropped to 91,000 in 2021. It rebounded 125% to 76,000 in the first half of this year as Hong Kong relaxed its quarantine rules for international travelers.

The National Health Commission said on December 26 that China would end quarantine requirements for all incoming travelers and allow more people to travel overseas from January 8. After that, people are to be permitted to enter mainland China without quarantine but they still need to show negative PCR test results within 48 hours prior to departure. 

On December 29, the Hong Kong government said people coming from the mainland only needed to show negative rapid test results. It also scrapped the PCR tests that had been required of people coming from the mainland and Macau on the second day after arrival. It recommended that all incoming travelers have rapid tests for five days.

However, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Italy, France and Spain reintroduced Covid tests for Chinese passengers after China saw a sharp increase in infections in December. Many of these restrictions also cover Hong Kong.

According to Sing Tao Daily, some business people in Hong Kong said they were worried that the city would be dragged down by foreign countries’ travel rules imposed on mainland China. They said they did not want the world to feel that Hong Kong had failed to be a “gatekeeper” while welcoming mainland tourists.

On Thursday, the Comprehensive Team for Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism for COVID-19 under the State Council issued a notice about the arrangement. It said people coming from Hong Kong to mainland China had to show negative PCR test results before departure, starting on Sunday, while those from Macau could skip it if they had not traveled overseas in the past seven days. 

Immediately, Macau announced it would scrap, from Sunday, its requirement of pre-departure PCR tests for those coming from Hong Kong.

Fifty thousand Hong Kong residents will be permitted to cross into the mainland each day via land borders from January 8 without the need for quarantine, Chief Executive John Lee said in a media briefing on Thursday. The same number of mainlanders will be able to visit Hong Kong per day, he added.

Hong Kong residents returning to the special administrative region and mainlanders heading north will be exempt from the quota arrangement, he said.

There will be no quotas for people traveling to and from Hong Kong via plane, ferry or bus over the bridge. In line with the current capacity, Lee said, up to 10,000 people per day will be able to travel in each direction via these modes.

Lee said that in the coming two months, 3.6 million of Hong Kong people, or half of the city’s population, will have at least one chance to visit mainland China. He expressed confidence that Hong Kong’s healthcare system will be able to cope with an expected increase in Covid cases once quarantine-free travel resumes.

The Hong Kong government launched a webpage for people to book arrangements from Hong Kong to the mainland.

Hong Kong residents and foreign passport holders had to register online and present negative PCR results from testing done within 48 hours before departure and mainlanders coming to Hong Kong would have to do the same, Chan said Thursday.

Jin Dongyan, a virologist in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Hong Kong, said Hong Kong would probably report 150,000 to 200,000 infections per day after January 8. On Thursday, Hong Kong reported 18,422 new Covid cases and 68 deaths. 

Read: EU and states crack down on passengers from China

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3