THE GOVERNMENT has further relaxed social distancing measures. At the same time, it is planning to establish a network of ''travel bubbles'', with the authorities saying that they are having negotiations with eleven countries. With the third wave of COVID-19 infections easing, many social and economic activities are ready for an orderly resumption. Hong Kong being a highly open economy, if industries such as conferencing and exhibitions are to be restarted, it is necessary to at least open its door to visitors from other regions. The key is proper risk control. What happened in May and June, when the exemption of sailors and crew members from quarantine arrangements created loopholes in the anti-pandemic system, must be avoided. In the new normal of the pandemic, the establishment of travel bubbles is necessary. The government must choose the countries to collaborate with based on an objective evaluation of how a country is affected by the pandemic rather than subjective preferences. Even if that country is an important trading partner or a popular destination for tourists, it must not be given the green light if the pandemic has not been brought under control there or there are apparent inadequacies in its anti-pandemic measures. Europe saw a sharp rebound of cases after it hastily relaxed travel restrictions in July. The Hong Kong government must adopt a phased and gradual approach and act cautiously when building travel bubbles.
The third wave of the pandemic is gradually easing, which is a hard-won outcome. This does not mean that the vigilance of society as a whole should be lowered, although the specific measures can be loosened appropriately. In the latest arrangements unveiled by the government, the social gathering restrictions have been relaxed to make it easier for the catering industry and other industries to do business. Some public recreational venues and sports venues have also been reopened to bring convenience to citizens' activities. Furthermore, the government is to reopen theme parks and exhibitions next Friday at the earliest, and is stepping up negotiations with the governments of other regions over the establishment of travel bubbles at the same time.
As a cosmopolis and an international hub, Hong Kong cannot keep its borders shut perpetually. To stimulate the economy, lifelines from the outside are necessary. To restart the exhibition industry, the government has to allow the entry of foreigners. According to the authorities, the government was in touch with the Japanese and Thai governments as early as the beginning of July over the establishment of travel bubbles. A ''Hong Kong Health Code'' scheme was also ready for the resumption of interactions with mainland personnel. However, due to the third wave of infections, the plans were postponed. As the pandemic is easing, Hong Kong is able to implement the plans at long last. With the pandemic easing in mainland China and no known exported cases, hopefully travel bubbles between Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao can be implemented first. As for cooperation between Hong Kong and other countries, yesterday (September 8) the government gave a relatively concrete illustration for the first time.
According to the government, it is in talks with eleven countries over the implementation of travel bubbles. In addition to Japan and Thailand, the European Union has also entrusted Germany with the task to negotiate with the Hong Kong government. As for how the plan should be operated precisely, the authorities have mentioned for the first time the possibility of passengers having two tests on one journey. This means that passengers are required to be tested before departure and after arrival, and are cleared for free activity only if both results are negative. Furthermore, all parties are allowed to propose additional restrictions or requirements such as a cap on the number of passengers, restricting travellers to specific cities or beginning with a pilot scheme for business travellers only.
In implementing a travel bubble scheme, the government should adopt a gradual approach and begin with business travellers. A hasty lifting of restrictions could lead to a repetition of the lessons of Europe.