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Third wave triggers immediate response

Hong Kong, 8 July 2020: Amid a general easing of social distancing rules and optimism about Hong Kong life returning to some sort of normality, health officials have been consistent in urging extreme caution. These warnings have now been borne out by the emergence of what is being termed a third wave of Covid-19 infections.

The authorities reported 14 new cases yesterday, nine of them local and with unknown sources of infection, a situation the Health Minister described as “very alarming”. The news takes Hong Kong’s total number of infections up to 1,299 with seven fatalities – still remarkably low numbers compared with other jurisdictions but a worrying development nonetheless.

The immediate consequences are a tightening of screening procedures for air and shipping crew members who are exempted from quarantine; pre-flight screening followed by mandatory two weeks quarantine for incoming foreign domestic workers; and a suspension of public visits to elderly care homes, rehabilitation centres and non-acute hospitals. As well, the government will organise the orderly return of Hong Kong residents from countries classified as carrying a high risk of infection, such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and South Africa.

Further, there is the prospect of a return to some of the tougher social distancing measures we have experienced in recent months while the news is also a setback to plans for the creation of health codes and travel bubbles between Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province.

This latest coronavirus outbreak has vied for the public’s attention with Hong Kong’s new national security law (NSL), which has now been in place for a week and continues to attract much scrutiny and debate. I wrote last Friday that the law has considerable scope for interpretation and enforcement, therefore it will take weeks and months for us to assess how far the authorities are prepared to go. I stand by this view.

However, we are seeing some concrete developments. The newly formed Committee for Safeguarding National Security, chaired by Chief Executive Carrie Lam and featuring senior ministers and officials, has convened for the first time and granted the police new powers. These include carrying out covert surveillance subject to the Chief Executive’s authorisation, ordering internet firms to remove content or seize their equipment, and demanding information from political groups operating outside the city. The NSL stipulates that the Committee’s work is not subject to judicial review.

Another development is that several major internet firms – namely Microsoft, Zoom, Facebook, Google and Twitter – have temporarily stopped considering requests from the government for information on users while they further examine the NSL and its possible implications, while TikTok has said it will exit the Hong Kong market within days. The government and Beijing, meanwhile, continue to insist the NSL targets only a tiny minority of people and will restore stability and confidence in Hong Kong after a year of civil strife.

Rest assured that Boase Cohen & Collins has examined the NSL in detail and is closely following developments relating to its implementation. We are well positioned to offer our clients clear guidance and advice in this regard.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins