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A quickstep towards tighter restrictions

Hong Kong, 25 November 2020: It takes two to tango, we’re told, but only one infected person is needed to act as a “super spreader” of Covid-19. As a consequence, Hong Kong has danced its way into a renewed coronavirus crisis and we face a tightening of social distancing restrictions once more.

Our government confirmed some 80 new cases yesterday, 54 of them linked to a cluster emanating from dance studios, the largest outbreak here since the public health crisis began in January. The response was immediate, with authorities ordering the closure of pubs, bars and nightclubs, requiring more venues to join the government’s Covid-19 risk-exposure app scheme, and limiting the number of people allowed at banquets to 40.

To the puzzlement of many, however, dance studios or dance schools can remain open, despite at least 187 recent infections among patrons. Asked repeatedly to justify this decision during a press conference yesterday, our Health Secretary Sophia Chan would only say people “should not engage in any high-risk activities”. Someone in the corridors of power must be fond of the foxtrot.

Around 10,000 venues have already joined our government’s “Leave Home Safe” mobile app programme, which allows users to record places they visit and be notified if an infected person has also been there. The new regulations mean all eating establishments and other designated premises, such as gyms, cinemas and mahjong parlours, must display the QR code. Mandatory tests will also soon be required for high-risk groups, including care home staff and taxi drivers. As well, the recent rise in cases has caused a two-week postponement of the travel bubble between here and Singapore which was supposed to launch last Sunday. Our city’s total of confirmed cases stands at 5,781 with 108 related fatalities. We are told to expect 86 new infections today.

Whatever the numbers, they will be dwarfed by the day’s major news story, Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s annual policy address. It was finally delivered this morning to a Legislative Council now bereft of any opposition lawmakers after Beijing’s recent disqualification of four individuals prompted their colleagues to resign en masse. You may recall Ms Lam was due to give the address six weeks ago but abruptly postponed it at two days’ notice, citing a wish to attend meetings on the mainland to secure opportunities for Hong Kong’s economic recovery.

Having ramped up the pressure on herself to produce meaningful policies, how did she fare? As we expected, there was nothing earth-shattering. Plenty of talk about cross-border collaboration in such policy areas as finance, aviation, technology and health, all to be done with staunch support from Beijing; a pledge to strive for Hong Kong to be carbon neutral by 2050; a commitment to accelerate housing supply; and promises of employment opportunities in the Greater Bay Area.

Of course, Ms Lam had much to say about national security, concluding Hong Kong presents a “gaping hole” in China’s protection apparatus and our city’s challenge is to restore constitutional order. Her comments follow the latest criticisms from UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who remains unimpressed with Beijing’s imposition of the national security law and disqualification of opposition lawmakers, adding that his nation is reviewing “whether it continues to be appropriate” for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. There are arguments their presence “adds legitimacy” to what is perceived as the erosion of civil liberties here, although some contend inviting overseas judges from other common law jurisdictions to sit on the CFA demonstrates and safeguards judicial independence. For the record, Beijing reacted to Mr Raab’s comments by telling Britain to “wake up from its colonial nostalgia”.

In today’s address, the Chief Executive also unveiled ambitious plans to turn the southern part of Hong Kong Island into a new destination for leisure and tourism, including further upgrades for Ocean Park, the famed amusement park and marine attraction at Wong Chuk Hang. I’m taking grandson Nathan there tomorrow. After months of coronavirus, civil unrest, economic meltdown and political bickering, it’s time for a much more enjoyable sort of rollercoaster ride.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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