Give our youth a sporting chance, please
Hong Kong, 16 September 2020: Hong Kong’s frustrated sports enthusiasts have some reason to be happy this week, but don’t expect any wild celebrations. In announcing a further opening up of leisure facilities as the latest coronavirus outbreak dwindles, our government is at last recognising the important role sport should play in maintaining the mental and physical wellbeing of our population. However, inconsistencies abound.
Swimming pools will reopen from this Friday – operating at half capacity – but public beaches will remain closed. More sports premises will return to use, but not public football pitches or basketball courts. To the relief of many, the rather baffling requirement to don a mask while exercising in a gym is being lifted, although personal trainers must continue to wear one. In all these instances, groups are limited to four people. The continued closure of football and basketball facilities is disappointing. These two team sports are by far the most popular among Hong Kong youth, providing a vital social and recreational outlet amid our city’s myriad high-rise estates.
No doubt this view would be supported by the Right Honourable Lord Sumption, a Non-Permanent Judge in Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. As mentioned previously in this column, His Lordship has been vocal in his native UK in his criticism of lockdowns and other government efforts to suppress the virus. In The Sunday Times last weekend he argued: “If one thing has become clear over the past six months, it is that aggressive measures of social distancing make little difference in the long run. They buy time, but reduce deaths only if they last indefinitely. Even buying time comes at a heavy price in depression, mental illness and misery.” His argument is certainly gaining substance as more cities overseas return to harsh measures to combat Covid-19.
Hong Kong’s bar and nightclub owners are also welcoming the news that they can open again, having warned in recent weeks that many businesses in this sector are on the verge of bankruptcy, although they must operate at half capacity and with no more than two people per table. These and other relaxations were unveiled as Hong Kong achieved a landmark of sorts yesterday in recording zero local coronavirus infections for the first time in two months. Our health authorities announced just four new cases, all imported, taking the total number of infections to 4,975 with 102 related fatalities. We are told to expect around 11 new cases later today.
Debate continues over the worth of Hong Kong’s two-week mass testing programme which ended on Monday. A total of 1.78 million people – just less than a quarter of the population – were tested under the voluntary free screening scheme, which aimed to identify silent carriers of the virus. Health officials said the programme uncovered at least 42 new infections, or two per 100,000 people. The bill to taxpayers was HK$530 million (around US$68 million).
Our Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists the programme’s value should not be judged simply by the number of cases discovered, rather it has given the authorities important data and will help them make better informed decisions, including easing of social distancing measures and travel restrictions. However, the high cost, low number of new infections and the fact that more than three-quarters of the public declined to take part are more ammunition for critics who have questioned the programme’s reach and efficacy. If the scheme does result in better decision making, then surely targeted testing of high-risk groups such as care home residents and staff, plus migrant workers who often sleep in packed dormitories, should be considered essential.
Regarding Ms Lam’s mention of travel arrangements, it does seem the government has whetted our appetite only for this enticing topic to be taken off the menu. Official talks about a travel bubble between Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province began months ago. I might be missing something, but it would not appear overly difficult to implement a scheme whereby a traveller who presents a valid health certificate before boarding a plane, train or ferry is not required to undergo quarantine on arrival.
In the meantime, at least we can all enjoy a mask-free gym session this weekend and the bar will be open afterwards. This makes life a little more enjoyable.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins