Editorial:The suspension mechanism for Return2HK scheme

【明報專訊】A confirmed case of COVID-19 infection in Liwan District of Guangzhou has triggered a controversy surrounding the suspension mechanism for the Return2HK scheme. It was not until last night (May 24) that the Hong Kong government finally announced that the virus-ridden micro-district, where a case is located, rather than the entire province, will be used as the unit for determining the scope of the suspension mechanism for quarantine-free entry to Hong Kong. Late last year, the government came up with the idea of ''fighting the pandemic with precision'', trying to avoid imposing a blanket anti-pandemic measure rigidly on all sides. But the latest row shows that the authorities' actions are not consistent with this principle. The mainland has battled the pandemic with ferocious efficiency. Even when sporadic cases come up, the spread can be eradicated swiftly. In fact, the mainland's ability to basically maintain ''zero cases'' was the precondition for implementing the Return2HK scheme. The mainland has long abandoned the method of locking down an entire city for pandemic control. Rather, the precise approach of controlling the pandemic by locking down only the micro-district concerned has worked effectively. However, the suspension of the Return2HK scheme was applied to a whole province because of only one single case. From an anti-pandemic perspective, there are no reasons that the suspension mechanism for Return2HK should be stricter than those for travel bubble arrangements or flights. It is necessary for the Hong Kong government to enhance communication with the mainland and formulate a more reasonable suspension mechanism to guard against the import of the disease to avoid any more U-turns or confusion regarding information dissemination.

After the pandemic on the mainland began to ease off in early summer last year, the Hong Kong government launched the Return2HK scheme in November. Under the scheme, Hongkongers in Guangdong Province or Macao can enjoy quarantine exemption when they return to the city as long as they meet conditions like a negative nucleic test result. At the end of last month, the Hong Kong government even extended the scheme to cover other mainland provinces and municipalities. Last Saturday (May 22), the Hong Kong government suspended the scheme for Guangdong Province at one point because of a confirmed COVID case in Liwan District of Guangzhou, causing anxiety among many Hongkongers in Guangdong. Several hours later, the Hong Kong government clarified that Guangdong Province was not classified as a medium-risk place and the Return2HK scheme will remain unchanged for the province. The confusion reflects bureaucratic red tape in the work of the authorities, the lack of thoughtfulness in their policy decisions and their failure to co-ordinate well with the mainland.

The mainland divides all places into three levels of pandemic risk — high risk, medium risk and low risk. An area classified as high- or medium-risk must put in place strict quarantine arrangements. At present, there is not an area in the whole of China classified as high-risk. There are 23 medium-risk areas, of which 15 are in Liaoning Province, seven are in Anhui Province, and one is in Guangdong Province. However, it must be pointed out that smaller units, such as neighbourhoods, shopping centres or even buildings, are now used for assessing medium-risk areas on the mainland rather than an entire city or a whole province.

Regarding the latest confirmed case found in Guangzhou's Liwan District, the authorities have only listed a neighbourhood in Liwan as a medium-risk area. So far there has not been a sign of viral transmission in the community. Guangdong Province has a population of more than 100 million. More than 15 million people normally live in Guangzhou and Liwan District constitutes one-fifteenth of them. The Hong Kong government's way of treating the whole Guangdong Province as a medium-risk area and calling off Return2HK for the entire province only because of the emergence of a single case in the neighbourhood was obviously disproportionate.

When the Return2HK scheme was set up, it was based on the three levels of pandemic risk on the mainland. Why did the Hong Kong government switch to a large unit (i.e. the whole province) in place of the smaller unit of a micro-district when defining an area of medium risk? What were the scientific grounds for that? The authorities have never offered an explanation to the public. The lack of thoughtfulness in their policy decisions is obviously not only the problem of a department. The Hong Kong government must obviously review the whole matter afterwards.

明報社評 2021.05.25:「回港易」熔斷莫名其妙 精準抗疫須說到做到






■/ Glossary 生字 /

blanket /ˈblæŋkɪt/:including or affecting all possible cases, situations or people

row /raʊ/:a serious argument between people, organisations, etc. about sth

sporadic /spəˈrædɪk/:happening only occasionally or at intervals that are not regular


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