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Difficult to call time on this pandemic

Hong Kong, 7 October 2020: Having only just been allowed to reopen, Hong Kong’s beleaguered pubs and bars are fearful of the government calling last orders again after becoming the focus of concerns about further spreading of the coronavirus. Two cases linked to a bar in Tsim Sha Tsui have brought fresh scrutiny on such venues amid calls for stricter enforcement of social distancing regulations.

Some 1,280 pubs and bars across the city threw open their doors on 18 September after two months of enforced shutdown due to the pandemic that left them with estimated losses of HK$260 million (US$33 million). They remain subject to restrictions, including closing at midnight and capping the number of customers per table at two, compared with four for restaurants, but there are fears some owners are being lax on this issue and that many patrons – who tend to be younger and more sociable – are sanguine about infection risks.

The bar in question is a good example. It is reported there were some 20 people there on the night it was visited by the two individuals who subsequently tested positive, yet it had just seven tables. I’ll leave you to do the maths. Today, there are reports the government is mulling another citywide closure of pubs and bars, which would obviously be catastrophic for the industry.

Having successfully ridden out the so-called third wave of infections – which led to nearly 4,000 people contracting the virus between early July and late September – we are now being told to brace for the fourth wave. Cooler weather that apparently allows the virus to survive longer and spread faster, easing of social distancing regulations, the territory-wide return of schools and possible relaxation of border controls will combine to spark further outbreaks, health officials have warned. Hong Kong logged eight new coronavirus cases yesterday, taking the city’s total to 5,132 with 105 related deaths. We are told to expect 11 new cases today.

In the meantime, anyone in Hong Kong hoping to visit a low-risk jurisdiction without having to undergo quarantine on return will need to wait a while longer. Even a quick hop over the border to Macau or Shenzhen – two cities where the virus is patently under firm control – is currently out of the question. Our government assures us it is still working on this.

On the subject of travel, a visitor to these shores in the not-too-distant future will be the Right Honourable Lord Patrick Hodge. Currently Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, he has just been announced as the latest Non-Permanent Judge of our Court of Final Appeal. His appointment brings to 14 the number of foreign judges sitting on the CFA. Lord Hodge is also an Honorary Professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai and has frequently been involved in official discussions with Mainland counterparts on a wide range of judicial matters.

While Lord Hodge’s acceptance of his CFA role has prompted some criticism in the UK for “adding legitimacy” to China’s enforcement of the national security law, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has stressed the importance of inviting overseas judges from other common law jurisdictions to sit on the CFA, pointing out that it demonstrates and safeguards judicial independence here.

As a footnote, I should add that Lord Hodge’s appointment is unrelated to the sudden resignation from the CFA on 2 September of Mr Justice James Spigelman. The Australian, who had two years left to serve, was reported to have told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation his decision was “related to the content of the national security legislation”, although there was no elaboration. There is no way the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, the 10-member independent body, could have completed its recommendation process for Lord Hodge in such a short timeframe.

Finally, for those of you who have kindly asked, I did have a pleasant family staycation at the Four Seasons last week and grandson Nathan loved the tent in his room, although he wisely chose to sleep in his much larger bed. We also had a wonderful Mid-Autumn Festival family lunch for 12 and, yes, it comprised three tables of four. We Cohens take our social distancing responsibilities seriously.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins