Hong Kong slashes border crossings with China over virus

by AFP / pic by AFP

HONG KONG – Hong Kong on Tuesday announced drastic measures to cut the number of people crossing into the city from mainland China in a bid to curb the spread of a SARS-like virus that has already killed more than 100 people.

With tour groups from the mainland already suspended, the new measures blocking individual travellers will dramatically reduce the number of Chinese able to visit the semi-autonomous city.

The number of flights from the mainland to Hong Kong will be halved and all ferry services suspended to “reduce the mobility of people from both sides”, city leader Carrie Lam (picture) said, adding six of 14 border checkpoints will close from January 30 “until further notice”.

The financial hub has declared the new coronavirus a public emergency and on Saturday ramped up measures to reduce the risk of more infections.

Eight people in Hong Kong are known to be suffering from the illness. Of those, six arrived via the high-speed train line that connects the city to the Chinese mainland.

Lam said that with the “approval of the central government”, mainland China will suspend issuing permits for individual visitors in 49 Chinese cities.

The announcement came after growing calls from some politicians and medical experts for a complete shutdown of the mainland border to those not from Hong Kong.

“The epidemic has spread to many Chinese provinces. Blocking visitors from only Hubei can’t do much to help Hong Kong,” pro-democracy lawmaker Helena Wong said on Tuesday.

But major checkpoints on the land border with the neighbouring mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen will still be open.

“If we close the border and do not let anyone coming in and out of Hong Kong, the impact will be far-reaching,” Lam said.

“We appeal Hong Kong residents to return to the city from mainland as soon as possible,” Lam said, urging people who come back to stay at home for 14 days. 

The government said earlier it will close a range of public facilities to “avoid people gathering”.

Sports centres, grounds, swimming pools, beaches, campsites and sites including museums will all close.

The city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department said events at these locations would be cancelled until further notice.

Officials have also announced that all schools will extend their Lunar New Year holiday to mid-February and civil servants have been told to work from home.

Apart from Hong Kong local residents, anyone who has visited Hubei province — the epicentre of the outbreak — in the last two weeks has been denied entry to Hong Kong from Monday.