HONG KONG – Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has secured China’s preliminary support for a “reverse quarantine” programme to boost travel into the mainland, after two years of strict Covid-19 border controls throttled ties.

He said at a Thursday news briefing that officials from neighbouring Guangdong province expressed support for travellers to isolate in Hong Kong and then enter China quarantine-free during a virtual meeting.

“The main purpose is to first of all alleviate the burden of hotels in the mainland,” he said. “The second goal of this proposal is to ensure that we will have a system to allow a regular flow of people from Hong Kong into Shenzhen.”

Mr Lee said a task force would now establish how those who quarantine in Hong Kong can enter the mainland without risking “contamination”.

He also suggested a community isolation facility in Lok Ma Chau – which is near the Chinese border and has capacity for some 11,000 beds – could be suitable for the programme.

Currently, those crossing Hong Kong’s border into China must quarantine in a hotel for seven days, followed by three days of home surveillance. Demand for such isolation rooms in the mainland is high, with limited capacity on offer.

Mr Lee scrapped plans to travel to Guangdong this week for in-person talks, due to Covid-19 surges on both sides of the border. But he said conducting the meeting remotely had not made the exchange any less “fruitful”.

Since taking office on July 1, Mr Lee has faced pressure to balance reopening internationally and with the mainland.

Hong Kong’s economy is set to contract for the third time in four years, as isolating pandemic policies weigh on growth.

The city is one of the last places in the world to impose hotel quarantine on vaccinated arrivals and an outdoor mask mandate.

Mr Lee has continued on the path of his predecessor in deviating from President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach, pausing a painful flight ban mechanism and slashing hotel quarantine to three days from as high as 21.

But Hong Kong is still one of the last cities in the world to impose isolation measures on vaccinated arrivals.

“It’s always my intention, and the government’s intention, to allow maximum connectivity with the world,” Mr Lee replied, when asked about further reducing hotel quarantine.

However, he warned that with Hong Kong recording nearly 10,000 daily Covid-19 infections, the public health care system was facing a “serious threat” and urged the community to work together to reduce the infection numbers.

“As the number of cases come down,” he added, “there will be more room for me to do extra things.” BLOOMBERG