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Harbouring doubts about our exit plan

Hong Kong, 20 October 2021: Having lived in Hong Kong for 40 years, I’m sometimes guilty of being blasé about this wonderful city’s unique appeal. Boasting an exotic blend of ancient and modern, East meets West, downtown bustle versus country park tranquility, there is nowhere quite like it. And it appears many people agree, given we attracted more than 65 million visitor arrivals – well over eight times our population – in the good old days of 2018, pre-protests and Covid-19.

So the latest (socially distanced) outing of the Stumblers, our loose collection of hiking enthusiasts, last Saturday provided a timely reminder of this city’s enduring charm. Having climbed several testing hills on the public holiday (for Chung Yeung Festival) just two days before, we opted for a gentle stroll along the Hong Kong Island waterfront, beginning in Admiralty and heading west to Kennedy Town. The government has done an excellent job in providing an almost continuous pedestrian walkway for the public to savour our famous harbour – complete with dramatic skyline and iconic Star Ferry – in all its glory.

Adjacent to the walkway are the Central Government Offices and Legislative Council Complex. It is here where our leaders are presently wrestling with myriad issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. While much of the developed world is returning to normal, Hong Kong has worked itself into an almost existential crisis over its ongoing border closure, draconian quarantine rules (coupled with contentious exemptions) and abject failure to vaccinate many of our most vulnerable citizens.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam is unequivocal that opening our border with the Mainland is top priority, but that decision rests with Beijing and, so far, there is nothing doing. A stark indicator of where we stand came last Saturday when Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body, Tam Yiu-chung, was barred from travelling to Beijing following a single, untraceable case of Covid-19 found recently in our city of 7.45 million people. Mainland health authorities cited the risk of infection. Mr Tam admits to being “not too optimistic” that the border will open anytime soon.

While one of our most senior politicians is grounded, this city continues to allow in visitors from neighbouring Guangdong Province and Macau without having to undergo quarantine under the ComeToHK scheme. The ReturnToHK programme, meanwhile, grants quarantine exemptions to Hong Kong residents returning from anywhere in the Mainland or Macau. Then, of course, there are the thousands of exemptions granted to all manner of arrivals – government officials, public officers, corporate executives and the like – at our airport and border checkpoints.

These treasured exemptions, however, do not extend to world-class artistic talents. Jaap van Zweden, Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, has cancelled his remaining appearances with the orchestra this year – including two sold-out Beethoven concerts next month – after being told he would have to do 21 days’ quarantine upon arrival from his native Netherlands. He is being welcomed with open arms in Seoul, however, as a guest conductor there. Young British cello superstar Sheku Kanneh-Mason will be playing sold-out shows across the US, Germany, Switzerland and Czech Republic in the next three months. But not Hong Kong. His long-awaited debut here, four years in the planning, has been shelved. Whistle and wait, folks.

Carrie and Co assure us emergency measures will be relaxed once vaccinations reach a satisfactory level. Who knows when this will be? The authorities now promote the percentage of eligible population who have been jabbed (67.9% with first dose) as opposed to the entire population (61.3% with first dose). But just 4,025 citizens received their first jab yesterday. At the current seven-day rate, this city will reach 70% (the much-discussed “herd immunity” figure which, in reality, is meaningless) on 30 March 2022.

The inoculation levels among the elderly are scarily low. Just 41.8% of those aged 70-79 and a paltry 15.4% of citizens aged 80 and over have received their first dose. Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip, in charge of the vaccination programme, has announced a new pick-up service for the elderly to be driven to health centres while, from next month, mobile vaccination vehicles will be dispatched to housing estates. To which a reasonable response might be: “What’s taken so long?”

Seeking light at the end of our Covid-19 tunnel, I sought the opinion of corporate risk specialist Steve Vickers during our latest Law & More podcast. His response: “I don’t want to depress everybody, but I think we’re into another 12 to 14 months of quarantine regulations as they are.” Steve was a hugely entertaining guest, reflecting on his career as a senior officer in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (resolving kidnappings and combating triads) before moving into the business world. Please listen when you have time.

As for now, we remain domestic tourists, a status exemplified by a group of my BC&C colleagues who ventured out last Saturday to picturesque Peng Chau – literally “flat island” – where they enjoyed exploring, dining and a pottery class. Less than 1 sq km in size, Peng Chau is a tranquil retreat featuring historic temples, quiet beaches and a couple of cosy restaurants. Hmm, let’s see: no hills, impossible to get lost and “refreshments” nearby … it sounds like a perfect outing for the Stumblers.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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