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A weight – and wait – just too much to bear

Hong Kong, 23 March 2022: “I can stand the despair, it’s the hope!” So wails angst-ridden school headmaster Brian Stimpson (played by John Cleese), famed for his obsession with punctuality, in the 1986 British comedy movie Clockwise. His day unravels spectacularly after he boards the wrong train to a conference and endures a catalogue of misunderstandings and chance encounters in a fraught chase across the countryside.

What befuddled Brian suffers for a single day, pandemic-weary Hong Kong citizens have endured for more than two years under a government which has turned flip-flopping, ignoring science and lack of planning into an artform. Despair is our default mood and yet – and yet – we remain naive enough to retain a fragment of hope. Surely someone, somewhere, in those corridors of power, will grasp we are at our wits’ end? Lives and livelihoods destroyed, businesses bankrupted, families fractured, mental and physical health severely compromised, we desperately need a way out of this unholy mess.

Hence, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced last Thursday she was undertaking a “midterm review” of current quarantine and social distancing rules – conceding the public’s tolerance for harsh anti-epidemic measures was “fading” – our hopes soared. Would this be the long-awaited breakthrough? Much-needed light at the end of the tunnel? The lightbulb moment?

Of course not. To borrow Hollywood legend David Niven’s famous quip about his notorious fellow actor and one-time housemate – “you can rely on Errol Flynn, he’ll always let you down” – so we should have known what to expect from our leader on Monday morning when she grandly announced some so-called concessions:

  • Flight bans on nine countries – including UK, US and Australia – to be lifted on 1 April.
  • From the same date, mandatory hotel quarantine for residents returning from overseas to be cut from 14 days to seven.
  • Compulsory universal testing suspended.
  • Schools to resume face-to-face classes from 19 April.
  • Social distancing measures to be relaxed in phases over three months from 21 April.

If this seems, at face value, to be significant progress, the devil is in the detail. In reality, all Carrie has done is throw the hungry dog a bone to stop it annoying her.

Lifting the flight ban is virtually meaningless since the government has kept its strict rule which suspends flights from that destination if too many passengers test positive for Covid-19 on arrival. Hence, Cathay Pacific – our dear old battered, bruised but indefatigable national carrier – has clarified it can only resume one flight per route every two weeks.

The seven-day hotel quarantine for returning residents – fully vaccinated and Covid-negative, remember – is still starkly at odds with the arrangement for citizens here, who can generally just stay home and munch Panadol for a week if they test positive. All arrivals must still undergo daily rapid antigen tests while confined to their hotel room, plus polymerase chain reaction tests on days five and 12 (the latter at a community testing facility). As public information champions Webb-site.com point out in their Twitter feed, we should not be celebrating a restriction of our right of return that is guaranteed by the Basic Law.

As for compulsory universal testing, many of us agree it is a waste of time, energy and resources. First, the University of Hong Kong, led by medical dean and government pandemic adviser Professor Gabriel Leung, estimates 4.4 million people – 60% of the population – have been infected thus far. Second, Carrie herself has admitted it will require at least 80,000 staff each day over a nine-day testing period. So, what’s the point? Yet this controversial scheme is merely on hold, not cancelled.

While the Chief Executive insisted on Monday that her government respected children’s right to receive an education (cue puzzled looks all around), it has been confirmed today that schools can only resume full-day classes if they achieve a 90% vaccination rate among students – an almost impossible target – otherwise they will be restricted to half-day learning. We continue to fail our young people.

Finally, the rollout of less stringent social distancing measures will be painfully slow. While we’ll be able to enjoy evening dinner in a restaurant (tables limited to four people) a whole month from now and gyms and other venues will reopen, we’ll still need to wear masks while hiking in the hills or exercising outdoors until around 20 May. We can expect teams of police officers to continue their diligent enforcement of such rules, with on-the-spot fines for citizens who fail to comply.

Sigh. Amid this madness, it is my pleasure to once again highlight the sensible, science-based thoughts of Dr David Owens and Professor Ben Cowling, who discuss where we’re at – including this city’s unenviable achievement of having the highest mortality rate in the world – in their latest podcast. Further, David’s four-part blog, examining how Covid-19’s Omicron strain gripped Hong Kong, the government’s (failed) strategy for tackling it and what we should do next, is recommended reading.

In closing, I should note that in normal circumstances a select group of voters would be choosing our next Chief Executive this Sunday. Of course, the election is now postponed to 8 May. Whoever wins – and it must be stressed the incumbent has yet to confirm whether she will stand – Hong Kong urgently needs a leader of vision, humility and empathy who can unify our polarised society. Will this happen? Alas, we can only hope.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

37+ years of legal experience is just a click away.

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