BEIJING (AP) — After two years apart from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure to be among the first to cross the border after checkpoints reopened. Sunday pass.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions, with travelers arriving from overseas no longer required to submit to quarantine.
“I’m hurrying to join her,” Cheung told The Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Lok Ma Chau Station.
However, travelers crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China must still show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 48 hours – a measure that China has protested when imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus and its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening that will see tens of thousands of people crossing each day is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.
China’s borders remain largely closed, however, with only a fraction of the previous number of international flights arriving at major airports. That number is now expected to rise as Beijing’s main airport prepares to reopen arrivals halls which have been quiet for most of the past three years.
China now faces rising cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing for further spread in less developed areas with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, which is expected to begin in the coming days. While international flights are still reduced, authorities say they expect domestic rail and air journeys to double from the same period last year, bringing overall numbers closer to those of the holiday period of 2019 before the pandemic hit.
China has said testing requirements imposed on its travelers by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden – are not based on science and have threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities publish daily counts of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these figures only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19 deaths.
Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, it can no longer provide a full picture of the state of the latest epidemic.
Government spokespersons have said the situation is under control and reject accusations from the World Health Organization and others that it is not transparent about the number of cases and deaths or fails to provide other crucial information about the nature of the current epidemic that could lead to the emergence of new variants.
Despite these claims, the Health Commission on Saturday put in place regulations for enhanced surveillance for viral mutations, including testing of urban sewage. The lengthy rules called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and intensified checks on “pneumonia of unknown causes”.
Criticism has largely focused on tough enforcement of regulations, including indefinite travel restrictions that have seen people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked inside without adequate food or medical care.
Anger was also expressed over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were routine. quoted.
The social and economic costs ultimately sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the toughest measures and redefine growth.
Under the latest changes, China will also no longer bring criminal charges against those accused of violating border quarantine rules, according to a notice issued Saturday by five government departments.
Those currently detained will be released and seized property returned, the notice said.
The Department for Transport on Friday called on travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, especially if they involve the elderly, pregnant women, small children and people with underlying illnesses.
Associated Press reporters Raf Wober, Alice Fung and Karmen Li contributed to this report from Hong Kong.