Good things come to an end

TO the irritation of some of the 19,000 Britons in Hong Kong, the Government is planning to subject United Kingdom passport holders to the same visa requirements as other expatriates. However, the inconvenience will be relatively mild.

The privilege of not having to apply for a work or student visa has long made it easy for British travellers to come to the territory. Some make money and move on, others come ''on spec'', in the hope of finding long-term jobs. But the presence of so many other nationalities in business and professional occupations shows visa requirements have not generally acted as a barrier to suitably qualified expatriates.

As the end of British rule approaches, it is only natural that the benefits enjoyed by UK citizens should be re-examined and eventually phased out. But for the fact that the territory's British administration has traditionally felt ownership has its privileges, there is no cogent reason why UK passport-holders should have been allowed to work without visas. That privilege would have been withdrawn by July 1, 1997 at the latest. For the Government to consider its removal in advance is sensible forward planning. It is particularly timely given the friction with local employees over expatriate contracts within the civil service.

There will nevertheless be those who feel Britons should be privileged for as long as Hong Kong is British. To accommodate them, the Government may draft its immigration bill to delay the introduction of visa requirements until 1997. However, that would remove much of the administrative benefit of having the regulations operating before the handover.

Instead of pandering to outdated colonial attitudes, the bill's drafters should concentrate instead on how to introduce, with the minimum disruption, work visas for those Britons already employed in Hong Kong.