London, 1 June 2022: On this day six years ago, the world’s longest railway tunnel opened in Switzerland. The 57km twin-bore Gotthard Base Tunnel provides a high-speed rail link under the Alps between northern and southern Europe. It has revolutionised freight transport and drastically cut travelling time for passengers, with the journey underground taking just 20 minutes.
I learned about this marvel of modern engineering during a visit to Zurich last week for the AGM of Ally Law (you can read about that here), the global alliance of independent law firms of which BC&C is a proud member. It was our first such gathering in more than three years due to the disruptions of Covid-19 and the question on everyone’s lips was: “What’s happening in Hong Kong?”
Sigh. Our beloved city is stuck in a long, dark and miserable coronavirus tunnel that makes the Gotthard Base project look like a rabbit burrow. Our journey towards normality is arduous and painful, with no end in sight, not even a flicker of light in the distance. I explained to my fellow delegates that even fully vaccinated visitors who test negative on arrival must undergo at least one week’s hotel quarantine; that travel in and out is an expensive lottery due to flight suspensions; that we must still wear masks outdoors; that we are required to use a government tracking app on our phones every time we enter a restaurant, supermarket or practically any type of venue; and that we are limited to group gatherings of four people.
All this in a teeming metropolis which bills itself as an international finance centre, global aviation hub and “Asia’s World City”. My colleagues were incredulous. They had converged on Zurich from all over the world, the vast majority of them travelling unburdened by health checks or restrictions of any kind. They simply could not fathom why a city famously built on business, innovation and ease of access would continue such damaging isolationist policies.
The answer, according to our Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau, is because there will be importation of Covid-19 cases if quarantine is dropped. “This is the priority and we can’t compromise it because of the economy,” he told a radio programme this past weekend. Yes, the same Edward Yau who has just skipped hotel quarantine after returning from a trip to Bangkok aimed at promoting investment in our city. He was allowed to isolate in his (undoubtedly palatial) residence. Ditto Eddie Yue, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, who was also permitted to put his feet up at home last month after visits to Basel and London, where he held a seminar for leaders of the UK’s financial services sector.
I hope their business meetings were fruitful because Hong Kong’s economy shrank by 4% during the first quarter of this year. On a quarterly basis, GDP declined 2.9% in the first quarter from the preceding one last year. Private consumption plunged 5.4% year on year while exports slumped 4.5%. Our city’s unemployment rate, meanwhile, has climbed to a one-year high of 5.4% as tough anti-pandemic measures continue to exact a terrible human toll.
No such issues in Zurich, where our formal meetings and presentations – during which Covid-19 was barely mentioned – were interspersed with social activities that highlighted the rich heritage and culture of one of Europe’s most picturesque cities. It is open for business. London, likewise, is thriving. I arrived back here two days ago to find it resplendent as the UK prepares to honour Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee with four days of celebrations from tomorrow. The country is hanging out the bunting and some 12 million citizens are expected to take part in street parties to mark Her Majesty’s 70 years on the throne. Nostalgic Prime Minister Boris Johnson even wants to commemorate the Queen’s big moment by bringing back imperial weight measurements in shops. It is good to know daft ideas are not the sole preserve of Hong Kong’s leaders.
Our city, of course, is preparing for its own special day. Friday 1 July will mark the 25th anniversary of the handover from British rule and will see John Lee installed as our new Chief Executive. He has just returned from Beijing where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hailed him as a patriot dedicated to safeguarding national security. Mr Lee also received his formal letter of appointment from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and responded by saying: “I will do my utmost to live up to the trust of the central government and the expectations of the public.”
Those expectations, I would suggest, include a roadmap out of the pandemic, something outgoing leader Carrie Lam has conspicuously failed to give us. Her weekly media briefing yesterday brought only the usual nanny-like discouragement, foreboding and caution. A further easing of social-distancing rules that would lift all restrictions on pubs and restaurants could be delayed because of two Covid-19 clusters linked to bars, she warned. Further, there would be no significant changes to other pandemic measures, including the seven-day hotel quarantine, before her term of office ends on 30 June.
Same old, same old. Double standards, lack of empathy, denial of science. As we cling stubbornly to policies which are harming our financial, physical and mental health, we can only conclude Carrie & Co are suffering from – yes, you’ve guessed it – tunnel vision.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins