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Free to make our own decision

Hong Kong, 26 August 2020: Hong Kong residents may have been frustrated in their right to vote on 6 September with the postponement of the Legislative Council election for 12 months, but citizens will still be applying their freedom of choice in a much-scrutinised public exercise next week.

Our government is about to roll out its voluntary mass testing programme for Covid-19, with large-scale assistance from the Mainland, and is urging all of us to participate. Indeed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam says it is our civic duty to do so. Supporters of the programme say it will identify silent transmitters and give individuals who test negative peace of mind. Others remain sceptical, questioning the effectiveness of a one-off test and insisting that targeted testing of high-risk workers and vulnerable groups such as care home residents should be the priority. Ms Lam is unimpressed, accusing opponents of playing politics.

So, putting politics totally to one side, I submit it is the right of every person to make an informed choice about their health and safety based solely on science and the advice of their doctor. The test is fairly invasive, as it involves taking a sample from the nasal cavity or throat. Those who test negative will receive a text message on their phone, while anyone with a positive result will be contacted by the Department of Health and admitted to hospital or an isolation facility.

In short, it is a question of civil liberties and, on this note, one visitor to Hong Kong who may be following events closely is the Right Honourable Lord Sumption, currently sitting as a Non-Permanent Judge in our Court of Final Appeal. A former Justice of the Supreme Court in the UK, Lord Sumption has been a vocal critic of the lockdown measures in his home country, arguing it is up to individuals rather than the government to decide what is reasonable risk and labelling some of the rules as “ridiculously intrusive and despotic”. He has outlined his views in a fascinating interview with the BBC.

The mass testing will begin as Hong Kong’s so-called third wave of coronavirus continues to decline, a trend which is bringing a welcome relaxation of some of the more stringent social distancing rules. There were just nine new cases on Monday – the lowest since 3 July – and 19 yesterday, maintaining a streak of more than 20 days with fewer than 100 infections. This took the tally of confirmed infections to 4,710 with 78 related fatalities. Around 24 new cases are expected to be announced later today.

From Friday, there will be a resumption of evening restaurant dining – we can now eat until 9:00pm as opposed to 6:00pm – plus an end to the requirement to wear a mask for outdoor exercise and the opening of some sports venues such as golf and tennis facilities. These are small but welcome concessions. In announcing them, Health Secretary Sophia Chan acknowledged “anti-epidemic fatigue” and the socio-economic needs of people.

While we can look forward to going out for dinner again and mask-free exercise – certainly, my regular evening walk is going to be more enjoyable – we should not forget the ongoing difficulties faced by students. Some Hong Kong schools have already “returned” after the summer break while others will do so soon but, once again, it is to online learning. The inadequacies of this situation are obvious. For children such as my six-year-old grandson Nathan, the classroom environment, with its emphasis on correct behaviour, attention to the teacher and interaction with friends, is paramount. We should not forget also that online tutoring is only increasing the inequality gap, as not all families can afford laptops or offer their children a home environment conducive to study. I strongly suggest we need to find a better balance between health considerations and urgent educational requirements.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins