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Covid replays test our endurance

Paris, 18 May 2022: German film director and football fan Wim Wenders once made a movie called The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty. I’m no lover of spot-kicks either, especially when it’s a shootout to decide a big match involving my beloved Chelsea. Doubt becomes dread which turns into despair. Such was my fate at Wembley Stadium on Saturday evening as we succumbed to Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Sigh.

I get a similar sinking feeling when reading the news from Hong Kong, since my adopted city appears stuck in a Covid-19 time warp. I’ve arrived in Europe from Australia’s Gold Coast, where there was barely a mask in sight. Singapore’s Changi Airport, scene of a brief stopover, was bustling, in marked contrast to the ghost town that is Hong Kong’s own aviation hub. I entered France and then UK without any health checks or quarantine mandates. England, it should be remembered, declared “Freedom Day” – lifting all remaining lockdown and social distancing restrictions – on 19 July last year. Last year! There were 85,000 spectators packed into Wembley. In both London and Paris, to which I returned on Monday, the pandemic is officially history, no one talks about it and hardly anyone wears a mask, either indoors or out. Life really is back to normal.

And Hong Kong? Mandatory mask-wearing, limits on public gatherings, compulsory hotel quarantine for arrivals and numerous other constraints remain in place under the city’s “dynamic zero Covid” strategy. Herd immunity is now robust thanks to sky-high levels of vaccination and natural infection, but the health authorities – and clickbait-seeking media – remain obsessed with daily case numbers and new clusters. The city has just recovered from its so-called fifth wave of infections yet some medical experts are already predicting the sixth. Citizens continue to endure public health messaging based on gloom, fear and stigmatising.

Residents, especially the business community, are thoroughly disillusioned. Yesterday, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce called on incoming Chief Executive John Lee, who will succeed Carrie Lam on 1 July, to prioritise the resumption of regular travel with mainland China and the rest of the world. A day earlier, the European Chamber of Commerce said the new government should make a “bold move” and present an exit plan to propel the city out of the pandemic. Chairman Frederik Gollob was unequivocal: “If you want to restart Hong Kong, you have to aim, and let me make it crystal clear, for no quarantine. Covid is not going away.”

The chorus of disapproval is growing louder. Last week, Cathay Pacific Chairman Patrick Healy told shareholders at the airline’s AGM the city was “falling behind” the rest of the world. Willie Walsh, Director General of the International Air Transport Association, warned last month Hong Kong had fallen “off the map” as an aviation hub and it would be difficult for the city to recover. Figures released on Monday showed Hong Kong Airport handled 126,000 passengers last month. The figure for April 2019 was 6.49 million.

Our outgoing leader, however, remains unmoved. In her weekly press conference yesterday, Carrie insisted her government would press ahead with the third phase of its vaccine pass scheme, thus requiring residents to receive a third jab before the end of this month to enter most premises. This despite the fact one million citizens have yet to receive such a shot, while her administration is under mounting pressure to review the scheme’s effectiveness. She again dismissed any notion of co-existing with Covid, as has been proposed by many public health professionals. “The government and myself are not bound by the views of experts,” she stressed. Yes, we know.

Will her successor see things differently? Unlikely. John Lee, who swept all before him in the Chief Executive election on 8 May, securing 99.2% of the 1,428 valid votes cast by the city’s Election Committee, simply said at the time he was fully aware of the demand for international travel and would seek to “make Hong Kong accessible to the world”. Responding to media inquiries this week, his office insisted the time was not right to ease quarantine rules for arrivals and that a balance had to be struck between “public health and travel convenience”. New leader, old policies.

Hong Kong’s fate is clearly tied to that of the Mainland, where dynamic zero Covid is king and the authorities are buckled down for the long haul. Last weekend, China relinquished its hosting rights for the Asian Cup finals – the continent’s most prestigious football tournament – because of Covid. The event, which is played every four years and features 24 national teams, was due to be held in 10 cities in June and July next year. That’s right, 13 months from now. The Asian Football Confederation is urgently seeking a new host nation.

Which brings me neatly back to the FA Cup. In the era before penalties were used to settle matters, matches went to replays. The grand old competition’s longest-ever tie took place in November 1971 when Alvechurch and Oxford City played six matches in 17 days, the first five ending in stalemate, with four going to extra time, before the former prevailed 1-0. “It was almost like going to work every day,” said one player, “same teams, same players, same result.” Hong Kong, alas, is the pandemic’s version of Alvechurch vs Oxford City. We desperately need someone to blow the final whistle.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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