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Behind the mask, we carry on

Hong Kong, 29 July 2020: Hong Kong has woken up today to its strictest social distancing measures yet following seven straight days of triple-digit increases in new coronavirus cases. Mask wearing is now mandatory in outdoor public places, even if you are exercising; public gatherings are limited to just two people, with an exemption for families; and there is a ban on dine-in services at restaurants, which can provide only takeaway food.

The first point I wish to stress is that Boase Cohen & Collins remains open and fully operational, as has been the case throughout this pandemic. Of course, we are observing rigorous hygiene protocols and allowing flexible working hours so staff can avoid peak travel times on public transport. In certain instances, people are working from home when circumstances allow. As ever, the Partners and I are grateful for everyone’s continuing dedication and professionalism.

This commitment is even more important bearing in mind that our courts are still open, albeit with adapted working practices. New jury trials have been relisted, while the ban on dining-in arrangements means some hearings are having longer lunch breaks or are being held in mornings or afternoons only. The seating capacities of public galleries and lobbies have been further reduced.

The Hong Kong authorities confirmed another 106 coronavirus cases yesterday, a fall of more than a quarter from the previous day’s record high of 145, taking our city’s total to 2,884. Fatalities have now reached 23. While acknowledging these increases, once again I feel it is essential to highlight that Hong Kong’s number of confirmed cases per head of population is a fraction of the figures in most other jurisdictions, notably the US and UK.

Like many other residents, I do feel frustrated that six months of sacrifice – including, at times, extended closures of private and public facilities and schools – appears to have been in vain as Hong Kong’s impressive record of combating Covid-19 unravels. In addressing the reasons for this, there is no denying government exemptions from testing and quarantine for certain travellers, particularly air and sea crew, deserve closer scrutiny.

Only from today are ships without any cargo trade via Hong Kong no longer allowed to change their crew here, plugging what health experts have consistently described as a loophole. Previously, shipping companies had been granted unrestricted crew changes in local waters, including for ships without cargo operations in Hong Kong. Official figures show some 10,000 seafarers were previously exempted from 14-day quarantine, although arriving and departing crew were restricted to their ships and accommodation, and the airport. Also starting today, aircrew members must obtain negative Covid-19 results before boarding flights to Hong Kong.

It is worth noting that a research team at Polytechnic University discovered strains in more than 20 recently confirmed local cases were highly identical to those of some imported cases, thus proving the latter were the source, it is argued. Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan, has acknowledged the study findings and promised government action.

The escalating health crisis has also triggered speculation the government might postpone the Legislative Council elections scheduled for 6 September. Indeed, it is reported our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has already discussed the possibility. Her pro-establishment allies are calling for the elections to be pushed back by as much as 12 months; opponents object to this, of course, saying any postponement would benefit the government by allowing public anger over the recently imposed national security law to subside. We shall wait and see.

It has been a while since I referenced the regular Covid-19 updates from Dr David Owens at OT&P Healthcare. As usual, his latest blog contains some fascinating insight; for example, a study by the University of Hong Kong has shown the risk of infection to be significantly higher in social exposure in comparison to family or work exposure. Highly recommended reading if you have a spare five minutes.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins