After being separated from his wife for two years in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun ensured that he was one of the first to cross the border after reopening border gates on Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to pass through is one of the clearest signs of China easing border restrictions, with visitors coming from abroad also no longer having to go through it. quarantine.
“I’m in a hurry to get back to her,” Cheung, dragging a heavy suitcase, told the Associated Press as he prepared to cross Lok Ma Chau station.
However, travelers traveling between Hong Kong and mainland China are still required to present a negative test result for COVID-19 taken within the last 48 hours – a measure that China has opposed when the authorities imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus and land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have largely been closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening that will allow tens of thousands of people to pass through each day is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail industries.
However, China’s borders remain largely sealed off, a fraction of the number of international flights previously to major airports. That number is expected to rise as Beijing’s main airport prepares to reopen arrivals halls that have been quiet for most of the past three years.
China is currently facing an increase in infections and hospitalizations in major cities, while bracing for the spread to less developed regions as the peak of Tet tourism begins. Lunar New Year, which is expected to take place in the coming days. While international flights remain down, authorities say they expect domestic rail and air journeys to double from the same period last year, bringing the overall figure close to the same period last year. holiday in 2019 before the pandemic hit.
China says the testing requirements imposed by foreign governments on its travelers – most recently Germany and Sweden – are not based on science and have threatened countermeasures. Unknown.
Chinese health authorities publish daily numbers of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of related deaths. to COVID-19.
Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to self-test and treat at home, it can no longer provide a complete picture of the situation. status of the latest outbreak.
A government spokesman said the situation was under control and denied accusations from the World Health Organization and other organizations that they were not transparent about the number of cases and deaths or provided vital information. differences in the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to the emergence of an epidemic. of new variants.
Despite such assertions, the Health Commission on Saturday introduced regulations to strengthen surveillance of virus mutations, including testing municipal wastewater. The lengthy rules call for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments, and increased testing for “pneumonia of unknown cause”.
Criticism has largely focused on the harsh enforcement of the regulations, including unlimited travel restrictions that keep people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked inside without any help. enough food or medical care.
Anger has also been vented at the demand that anyone potentially testing positive or having been in contact with such a person be detained for observation in a makeshift hospital, where it is often assumed that the condition overcrowded, poor food and poor hygiene.
The social and economic costs eventually led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, which could influence the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the measures. strictest measures and realigning priorities for growth.
As part of the latest changes, China will also no longer criminally prosecute people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a notice issued by five government agencies. on Saturday.
Individuals currently in custody will be released and confiscated property returned, the notice said.
The Department of Transport on Friday urged travelers to reduce trips and gatherings, especially if they involve the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying medical conditions.
Associated Press reporters Raf Wober, Alice Fung and Karmen Li contributed to this report from Hong Kong.