As Beijing has tightened its grip on Hong Kong affairs, the standing of the city’s only local delegate to the mainland’s top legislative body has soared. The barring of Tam Yiu-chung from a meeting in the national capital this week, prompted by a seemingly remote risk of coronavirus contagion, therefore comes as a shock. It is testament to a disconnect over pandemic strategy. Hopefully it will help focus the attention on the need to close the gap and for officials to come clean on what the city must do to resume normal cross-border travel and trade links vital to its economic growth. Hong Kong is caught between incompatible pandemic strategies – the mainland’s zero tolerance versus “living with the virus”, an approach widely adopted elsewhere. The adoption of zero tolerance here has made an increasing number of people unhappy, with international businesspeople in Hong Kong at the forefront. The decision to bar Tam comes little more than a week after confirmation of a local Covid-19 infection in the city, following 51 days without one. Tam understood the decision was linked, adding that “the mainland attaches great importance to unknown cases”. The disconnect must be addressed one way or another if Hong Kong is to keep pace with the global recovery. An example is that while Beijing excludes Tam, Hong Kong continues to exempt diplomats from quarantine, among a long list of exceptions revealed after actress Nicole Kidman was granted a controversial exemption. “Follow the science” has been a rallying call to governments. But the approach on the mainland has as much to do with politics as science, with systemic accountability for infection breakouts and officials held responsible. As a result, provinces and cities impose different quarantine periods, with risk assessment based on contact tracing through a mandatory health code app. That policy enjoys popular support, leaving little incentive for leaders to change course. China unlikely to accept voluntary Hong Kong health code, top delegate says To narrow the gap with the mainland, Hong Kong could start by ending most exemptions. Ultimately, however, while the mainland maintains a zero-tolerance policy, the debate is about a mandatory tracing system, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says Hongkongers would probably not accept. For Beijing it is not just about public health but national security, at which point it becomes an issue of one country – not two systems – and a common threat. That raises the question of what Hong Kong is to do if it is unable to meet the mainland’s demands for fully reopening the border in the near future. Should it review its priorities? It is up to the local government, not Beijing, to say what needs to be done, exactly, for cross-border travel to resume. After several rounds of talks with the mainland it must know, whether we like it or not. Only then can we narrow differences or consider changing course.