Exclusive | ‘One country, two systems’ lets Hong Kong have own Covid policies without copying mainland, quarantine-free travel possible by November with conditions: health minister
- Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau says he favours a local health code and more testing to better ring-fence cases, ensure city does not have to return to tightened social measures
- Lo says President Xi Jinping had stressed Hong Kong must maintain its own uniqueness and Beijing will not blindly ask city to follow its policies
Hong Kong need not copy mainland China’s tough Covid-19 policies as it enjoys wide latitude under the “one country, two systems” principle, the new health minister has said, as he forecast that quarantine-free arrivals with conditions attached could be allowed by November in time for a global bankers summit.
During the wide-ranging session, he also revealed internal modelling predicted a rebound in the city’s recent fifth coronavirus wave and a peak in September with up to 10,000 patients needing hospitalisation, but he vowed not to let the infections run out of control.
“Listen to what President Xi Jinping said on Hong Kong’s 25th handover anniversary. He talked about ‘four necessities’ and the fourth one is very important – he stressed Hong Kong must maintain its own uniqueness and strengths,” Lo said.
“Mainland is different, in its demographics, medical infrastructure and vaccination rates … Indeed we are one country, two systems, in our pandemic policies in the last two years too,” said Lo, who served across the border as chief executive of the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital. “The country would not blindly ask Hong Kong to follow its policies. This should delight all our foreign businesses.”
Since taking office on July 1, Lo has embarked on a policy reform blitz, including halting the city’s flight suspension mechanism and indicating a wider overhaul of its tough quarantine regime for overseas arrivals.
The straight-talking minister, who once said coexisting with the virus was tantamount to “going to hell together”, set himself apart from the previous administration in one of his first acts in office, by tapping his long-established contacts in mainland agencies to successfully negotiate an increase in Shenzhen’s quarantine units and thereby entry quotas. He also asked Shenzhen to enforce a tougher crackdown on profiteers abusing the booking system.
“I just shot them a message on WeChat,” Lo said, referring to their personal rapport on the Chinese communication device.
Over the weekend and on Monday, Lo courted controversy when he announced he was introducing a real-name registration system for the government’s “Leave Home Safe” risk-exposure app, adding a mainland-style, colour-coded component to bar Covid-19 patients and quarantining travellers from local premises, and reinstating electronic tracking wristbands for those in home isolation.
Defending the measures which came under some criticism, Lo said they were not designed to curb people’s freedoms, but to enhance them. “We are really acting out of a kind heart and want to help the travellers,” he said.
He explained that by strictly prohibiting entry into “high-risk venues”, he was making a cut in hotel quarantine time possible.
Lo said he would still need to examine the latest data on the positive rate in nucleic acid testing (PCR) results submitted on the third day of their hotel stay by overseas arrivals, a requirement just added last week, before he could decide on changes to the quarantine rules. These could entail moving to a “5+2”, “3+4”, or even “0+7” regime, with the numbers denoting days of hotel and home isolation respectively.
But the minister said that by the time when a much-anticipated summit of global financiers and top bankers was held on November 1 and 2 by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the word “quarantine” was likely to carry a much different meaning – one that would perhaps include PCR screenings and a ban from high-risk activities such as bar gatherings.
“Is nothing required any more? I think that would be a bit tough. At least PCR testing is needed. But does quarantine have to be confined to a fixed location? … Could it be medical surveillance, plus a yellow code and not appearing in a bar for the first few days? I won’t rule that out. I very much hope to achieve that as well because I like to travel too,” he said.
“In the 11 days since I took office, nothing the government has done has increased residents’ burdens. We really don’t want to and we really understand Hong Kong is an international city and it has been two and a half years [of the pandemic],” Lo said. “We are focusing on our own principal responsibilities as a government, such as PCR testing, and how to do them better.”
Asked if Hong Kong was copying Macau’s model with its colour code app akin to that of the mainland system, Lo said: “I’ve never copied others. I only learn from others.
“The whole purpose [of the health code] is not to trap people, we only hope to identify those who are really at risk … Hong Kong is a very international city, we are different from Macau, we have different needs.”
The health code systems designed for the two cities were different, he said, noting that the starting point for Macau was zero, not even a single case in the community.
But for Hong Kong, he hoped the daily caseload could be cut from 3,000 to 2,000 or maybe even 1,000. “The whole idea is going for reduction, this is the right direction,” he said.
“Hong Kong can never do absolute zero, we have to find our own zero, whether it is Celsius, Fahrenheit or absolute,” Lo said, reiterating an analogy he used before that absolute zero in science as opposed to the layman’s “zero” would kill all life forms and not something the city should pursue.
Lo said he had felt personally the impact of the travel restrictions under the pandemic, but added that it would be impossible to simply quash them at one go as it could severely compromise public health.
“I used to travel overseas three to four times a month. I had many international exchanges when I was working for a university. I am also a bit depressed in these two years because I cannot attend international meetings.”
Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu, in a media briefing before his weekly Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, called on the public not to believe anyone who tried to smear the proposed health code. “Hong Kong is a very law-abiding place, so of course the government will also follow legislation,” he said.
On Tuesday, the new administration announced a further two-week extension of the largely relaxed social-distancing rules to July 27, while reporting 2,769 infections and a total tally of 1,276,432 cases and 9,420 related deaths since the pandemic began.
Explaining his strategy of giving maximum freedoms to low-risk residents, Lo said he would avoid using “indiscriminate” measures which would be socially costly to tame the rising caseloads. But he warned that 10,000 beds, or half of emergency public hospital beds, could be taken by Covid-19 patients in September if the current trajectory continued.
According to government predictions, public hospitals would need to cut back on 25 per cent of its non-emergency services by the end of July, which Lo said would affect patients who had waited long for operations.
Given such a scenario, he had to walk the tightrope of more testing and yet minimising the social costs to all and this was why he could not lift all Covid-19 restrictions in one go.
“That future has not yet happened. We would use a targeted, precise approach to change the future,” he said.