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Queuing up to question mass testing

Hong Kong, 9 September 2020: As we enter the second and final week of Hong Kong’s voluntary mass testing programme for Covid-19, there is lively debate about its effectiveness. Our government insists the scheme is helping track down invisible coronavirus carriers and should not be judged on how many people have been tested, the number of positive results, or the financial cost. Critics argue it lacks reach and efficacy and that a one-off test for random individuals is meaningless.

As of 8:00pm yesterday, the eighth day of the programme, about 1,240,000 people – just over 16% of the population – had made appointments to take part. Some 113,000 people went to community testing centres across the city yesterday, bringing the total number of tests carried out to around 1,310,000. Clearly, a significant number of people are taking the test two or more times. So far, the scheme has identified 18 new infections.

While there is general agreement among the medical profession that more testing is good, the debate is whether targeted testing of high-risk groups would be better. For example, Hong Kong recorded its 99th coronavirus-related fatality yesterday, a 90-year-old care home resident. Care homes have proven particularly susceptible to the virus, so regular testing of residents and staff would appear to be logical and sensible.

Throughout this pandemic, I have consistently urged readers to listen to the science rather than any rhetoric. Once again, I’m grateful to Dr David Owens and his colleagues for allowing me to share their latest Covid-19 update, which brings clarity to the question of population testing and the need for information and education.

Our so-called third wave of coronavirus continues to dwindle, with six cases confirmed yesterday – the lowest daily figure since five were reported on 3 July – taking the overall total to 4,895. Of these six, three were locally transmitted including two detected by the mass testing programme. We are told to expect another six new cases today.

This downward trend has led to the government announcing a further easing of social distancing restrictions from this Friday. The limit on the number of people per table in restaurants will increase from two to four, although dine-in services will still stop at 10:00pm; similarly, the limit on public gatherings will be relaxed from two to four people; and more premises will be allowed to reopen, including most indoor and outdoor sports facilities. Football pitches and basketball courts remain closed, however, as do swimming pools and beaches.

Frustration over these restrictions should be tempered, I believe, with awareness of what is happening overseas where certain cities, having reopened with some haste, are back in lockdown. It is worth remembering that only six weeks ago we had a daily high of 130 new cases. Our city has done remarkably well to reduce new infections so quickly and effectively.

Away from Covid-19, there has been a mini-epidemic of people talking about “separation of powers” after the phrase was removed from Liberal Studies textbooks by the Education Bureau, prompting accusations of political censorship. The term refers to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Certain parties, notably the Hong Kong Bar Association, argue that independent operation of these branches creates a system of checks and balances to guard against abuses. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng has today waded into the debate, stating separation of powers “has no place” in Hong Kong. This follows Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s assertion that critics are using the topic to “maliciously stir social conflict”.

The fact is, judges are appointed by the Chief Executive on the recommendation of the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, an independent statutory body. Similar systems are commonplace in other jurisdictions. Rather than unhelpful slogans such as separation of powers, I would rather focus on unwarranted attacks on the independence of our Judiciary, in which judgments are unfairly criticised by people from across the political spectrum. These have to stop. Rule of law and judicial independence are fundamental to Hong Kong. The good news is, from Friday you can debate this topic with three dining companions, not just one.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins