Executive Council member Lam Ching-choi said on Sunday that people should avoid travelling to the mainland or risk "having difficulties" coming back to Hong Kong, as he dropped the biggest hint yet that the government may impose further border control restrictions and new measures could be announced as early as Sunday.
This came as experts warned that the SAR could be close to having local transmission chains of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus, saying Hong Kong faces a greater risk of becoming another Wuhan, which is suffering from a massive outbreak of the virus.
Lam, who himself is a doctor, conceded on a Commercial Radio programme that the administration has fallen behind recently in its measures to fight the possible spread of the epidemic. He said they now have to catch up, and he wanted people who are travelling across the border to "get prepared psychologically" for the possibility that they may have difficulty returning.
Lam said possibly tighter measures include shortening the opening times of various ports, further limiting transportation facilities, changing methods of reporting and declaration, and even by introducing legislation to restrict cross border traffic.
"We must consider all these measures which is applicable to all different kinds of people, and of course especially for the mainland visitors, the government will try her very best that only essential travelling can occur after today," he told reporters.
Lam said Hong Kongers still form the majority of cross border travellers with the mainland, and they, like mainlanders or other visitors, could catch a virus just as easily as people from other places, so the government has to try all possible means to lower the number of travellers.
He said the fall in the number of travellers has been slower than expected and there's still room to reduce it further, and so officials may implement stronger measures, rather than just making appeals.
Lam denied the likely tougher measures are a result of the public hospital medical professionals' planned week-long strike starting from Monday to demand a full border closure.
Hong Kong University's leading microbiologist, Yuen Kwok-yung, said as there are already 12 imported confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus in Hong Kong, it means there are likely many sub-clinical cases that are already inside the SAR.
"That is sufficient to start a local chain of transmission.... If they're not interrupted by our measures, then Hong Kong can become another Wuhan. It's very important for us right now to take all these procedures to ensure the [virus'] reproductive number is lowered," Yuen said.
The professor said it's unacceptable for patients to tell lies or conceal their travel history, saying this puts medical professionals and other patients at high risk.
He called on the government to look into whether medical professionals can check if they had been to the mainland in the past two weeks through their travel documents or identity cards.