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From slow lane to fast track

Gold Coast, Australia, 4 January 2023: All aboard! Hong Kong’s much-vaunted bullet trains will start rolling again this Sunday if, as expected, our city’s border with the Mainland properly opens for the first time in almost three years. The super-fast service – passengers can travel from downtown to Shenzhen in only 15 minutes – commenced amid great fanfare in 2018 but was shut just 18 months later when the pandemic hit. Operator MTR Corp is working around the clock towards the reopening and tickets should go on sale tomorrow.

The High Speed Rail trains are quick – they can reach 350km/h on longer journeys into China – but even these marvels of modern engineering struggle to match the dizzying speed with which Hong Kong has dismantled its draconian anti-pandemic regime in recent weeks. It is only four months since the Education Bureau was tightening vaccination rules for secondary school pupils and Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau was imposing mandatory rapid antigen tests on dining groups of more than eight people. A little over three months ago, we were still (laughably) enforcing compulsory hotel quarantine on overseas arrivals.

So, the post-Christmas announcement by Chief Executive John Lee, unveiling the most extensive easing of travel curbs and Covid-19 policies since the pandemic began, is welcome news for long-suffering citizens. He has scrapped post-arrival tests for incoming passengers, the vaccine pass scheme to enter restaurants and many other venues, and remaining social distancing measures. Yes, all abandoned. It has taken everyone by surprise, including me. Having promised you a break from these scribblings, I’m compelled to put down my golf clubs and offer some thoughts.

How to explain this development? Such largesse from a government which has hitherto been proceeding with glacier-speed caution in its reopening would normally be strange. The fact it coincides with a rising Covid caseload – our city’s daily infections nearly tripled and daily fatalities almost quadrupled in December – makes it plain baffling. Health authorities reported 74 Covid deaths on Monday, the highest since the catastrophic fifth wave of infections at the beginning of last year. Why aren’t we being locked down?

Perhaps the answer lies north of the border. In recent weeks, China has abandoned its zero-Covid strategy, culminating in Beijing announcing – just two days before Santa John’s dishing out of late Christmas presents – that it is to scrap mandatory quarantine for arrivals and reopen China’s borders with the world soon. Coincidence, according to the Chief Executive, who bristles at the suggestion our city is, in the words of one newspaper reporter’s question, “at the mercy of Beijing” in terms of pandemic policy. He says of Hong Kong’s opening up: “It is not rapid, nor sudden. The time is appropriate for us to do it, having prepared for six months to do all these.”

Hmm. A more sceptical citizen than I might point out the authorities have suddenly gone from snail’s pace to sprinting for the finish line. It would also be pertinent to ask why, if this has been the plan all along, we’ve never been told about it. Every time our leaders have been pressed for the specifics of an exit strategy (dates, targets and the like), they’ve vacillated. As ever, it falls to Dr David Owens to spell it out: “Hong Kong border restrictions, along with other Covid policies, have had no grounding in science or evidence for many months. This was always a political, not medical, decision, which could have been made months ago.” Exactly.

But we are not at the end of this long, depressing tunnel. No, sir. We still have mandatory mask wearing outdoors. Why? All arrivals to our city need to show a negative test result before flying; non-residents from overseas still need to be fully vaccinated; all students and teachers must conduct daily rapid tests before attending school; Covid patients are still subject to an isolation order and, if their home or hotel is unsuitable, they are sent to a government facility. If you’re a tourist, would you come to Hong Kong knowing you must be vaccinated, wear a mask and risk a trip to Penny’s Bay if you test positive?

That said, Hongkongers travelling abroad also have concerns. A few countries – the US, UK, Canada and Australia, for example – are now imposing testing requirements on travellers from China. In some instances, this includes visitors from Hong Kong. Indefatigable Covid chronicler Aaron Busch, AKA Tripperhead, helpfully provides this comprehensive guide to help fellow citizens navigate what is, let’s be clear, performative Covid nonsense from nations who should know better.

Japan is among them, requiring visitors from our city to declare they have not recently visited the Mainland, a measure our unhappy government calls “unreasonable” and “discriminative”. Oh, the irony, Hong Kong objecting to other countries applying the sort of science-devoid travel restrictions it has been enforcing on the rest of the world for the past three years.

OK, enough quibbling, let’s at least end on a positive note. In his New Year message, our Chief Executive is promising “a new chapter for Hong Kong” in which the city will escape the shadow of Covid and truly begin to prosper. Like our bullet trains, we hope our journey from here to full normality (no masks, please) is fast, smooth and stays firmly on track.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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