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After the party, a pandemic hangover

Hong Kong, 9 November 2022: Jonah Lomu best summed up the unique appeal of the Hong Kong Sevens: “If you get bored, turn around and watch the rugby!” The late All Blacks icon adored the tournament, memorably returning to take part (and triumph, for a third time) in the 1996 edition when he was the most famous sportsman on the planet following his exploits at the previous year’s Rugby World Cup. Certainly, it’s a party like no other.

Our leaders seem to agree. Chief Executive John Lee, Financial Secretary Paul Chan and Secretary for Security Chris Tang, all sans mask, were among the revellers on Sunday, enjoying an occasion which has always showcased Hong Kong to the world. And if this particular Sevens was slightly diluted – smaller crowd due to lack of overseas visitors, mask rules (although not many bothered to comply) and fewer teams – no one was complaining. After three and a half years away amid five Covid-enforced postponements, it was wonderful to see our Sevens alive and kicking. Indeed, good times never seemed so good.

And now? Back to reality. Back to mask-mandated, PCR-tested, tracking-apped, amber-coded, socially-distanced, Covid-fatigued reality.

No, says Mr Lee (returning to serious leader mode having briefly let his hair down), we will not relax any more restrictions. So mask-wearing and “0+3” – overseas arrivals have to undergo three days of medical surveillance, during which they are banned from pubs and restaurants and must be tested for Covid regularly – are here to stay. He insists it is sufficient for his administration to tailor pandemic measures to specific international events that bring economic benefit to the city, perhaps forgetting the millions of residents who, via their work and consumerism, do precisely this.

Hence, the 200 bankers and fund managers who flew in for last week’s Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit were spared many of the onerous restrictions imposed on you and me. They were pictured maskless, mingling, chatting and eating without a care, secure in the knowledge that if they were found to have Covid they had permission to leave by private jet. Our Financial Secretary was there, centre stage, despite testing positive on his return from a conference in Saudi Arabia. He had been deemed a “recovered case”. Nothing to see here, move along.

Overseas attendees at the ongoing Hong Kong Legal Week are extended the same privileges. Secretary for Justice Paul Lam says this is “crucial” for encouraging the exchange of views between guests during lunch forums and dinner activities. Of course! Ditto delegates to the Asia Summit on Global Health (oh, the irony) being held tomorrow and Friday.

Anyone else benefiting from this largesse? Yes, tour groups. Within this month, the authorities will start allowing visitors to Hong Kong on trips operated by “licensed tourist guides” to enter “designated tourist attractions” including theme parks, museums and temples, and eat in “partitioned areas” of “designated catering premises”. It’s obvious, when you think about it. Holidaymakers on group tours are far less likely to transmit Covid than solo travellers.

It’s worth remembering we’re subjected to this all because our Chief Executive has declared a public health emergency and the government has enacted subsidiary legislation under the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance (Cap 599). However, in his latest High Court judgment on the matter – which dismisses a citizen’s challenge to the government’s pandemic policies – Mr Justice Russell Coleman makes some pertinent observations:

“Whilst Cap 599 understandably requires the government to put focus on combatting and alleviating the public health emergency, that focus should not be permitted to blind anyone to the concurrent need to protect public health in its wider sense. As a matter of construction and ordinary common sense and logic, the protection of ‘public health’ is not limited to protecting public health only from the perceived ‘public health emergency’. Measures previously effective to combat a public health emergency may lose efficacy, and may be or become counter-productive to wider public health issues. Therefore, if a measure taken to prevent, combat or alleviate the effects of a ‘public health emergency’ fails to protect ‘public health’, or if it even actually damages or harms ‘public health’, it can be argued that measure is not lawful.”

Legal or not, some eminent citizens believe the regulation is well past its sell-by date. University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling has no doubts: “Cap 599 should no longer apply. We no longer face a high probability of a large number of deaths or disabilities.” Dr David Owens is unequivocal: “Covid is now endemic. Hong Kong no longer faces a public health emergency. Cap 599 is harming public health.” Alas, their views do not prevail in the science-denying, logic-defying meeting rooms of Government House.

Sigh. Enough of Hong Kong and its pandemic preoccupation, I’m off to Qatar to enjoy the World Cup. With a nod to Jonah Lomu – different sport, but same ethos – I’m bored with Covid, time to turn around and watch the football.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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