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High hopes, grounded governance

Hong Kong, 12 October 2022: “Happiness is good health and a bad memory!” It’s a quote attributed to several famous figures, most notably Casablanca star Ingrid Bergman. The Hong Kong Tourism Board is banking on this being the case next year, hopefully with our city restored to full fitness and recollections of Covid-19 fading fast, because it is planning a massive promotional campaign to put us back on the travel map. This will include giving away 500,000 airline tickets worth HK$2 billion (US$254 million) to entice visitors, who will be greeted at the airport with various welcoming gifts and promotional offers.

Tourism Board head Dane Cheng promises the initiative is primed for takeoff as soon as our government announces the removal of all restrictions for inbound travellers. The Airport Authority, which is footing the bill, will liaise with airlines – including bruised and battered national carrier Cathay Pacific – to ensure the scheme’s success and pump lifeblood back into the tourism sector. How we need it. Inbound visitors to our city totalled 184,000 in the first eight months of this year; compare this with the 56 million who visited in 2019.

Happiness, of course, was a common theme on Monday as we marked World Mental Health Day. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Particularly so in Hong Kong, given our well-documented 10,000-plus Covid-related fatalities, draconian quarantine and social distancing rules, economic hardships and school closures, plus a painfully slow return to normality (and we’re nowhere near that yet).

So various charities, NGOs and businesses organised events on and around Monday to promote wellness and contentment. Workshops, symposiums, yoga classes, gym sessions, there was something for everyone. I thought the authorities might acknowledge the occasion with a promotion or statement, but it seems not. A quick scan of Monday’s official press releases reveals the usual “do as we say” Covid directives and actions: multiple compulsory testing notices; police and health officials enforcing rules; distribution of rapid test kits; and infection statistics. Anything positive? No. So allow me to be of service. Here are some useful tips from five Hong Kong experts to help us protect our mental health and support those struggling with a mental illness. And remember, it’s good to talk.

There was certainly plenty of discussion at the High Court yesterday as a judge imposed a temporary ban on our government invalidating more than 20,000 Covid-19 vaccination exemption certificates in a case which has gripped this city. The certificates were issued by doctors who allegedly failed to comply with guidelines or conduct proper medical consultations. In some instances, police believe the documents were bought for up to HK$5,000.

The government announced the exemptions would be annulled from today. Not so fast, said Mr Justice Russell Coleman at the hastily convened judicial review to consider whether Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau had overstepped the mark. “The central question is whether the regulations that you rely on in fact, as a matter of law, create a power for what has been done,” he told Department of Justice counsel William Liu. He adjourned the case until Thursday next week.

Chief Executive John Lee has yet to give his thoughts on this latest pandemic policy pickle, but he’s in strident form on other issues. Unilateral sanctions imposed on him and other senior officials by the US? “We just laugh them off. We comply with United Nations sanctions, that is our rule of law”. Any chance of lifting this city’s “0+3” medical surveillance system (no mandatory hotel quarantine, three days of self-monitoring) for inbound travellers? “Each measure should be introduced in a step-by-step, steady and orderly manner.” Why can’t we be more like mask-free, vibrant Singapore? “We should not compare ourselves with Singapore. We have different healthcare, different culture.”

Really? Perhaps he should tell Financial Secretary Paul Chan, who has devoted his latest weekly blog to analysing the two cities – a sharp reaction to Singapore pinching third place from us in the Global Financial Centres Index – and listing ways in which we’re better than our noisy neighbours: our stock market value is seven times higher; we have well over double the number of listed companies; our assets under the management of private equity funds are four times higher; and we outmatch the Lion City in areas including economic contribution and green finance.

We also knock Singapore out of the ballpark for Covid mortality rate – ours is four times higher – and this despite us enduring far tougher quarantine, testing and social distancing regulations. We continue to put up with mandatory mask wearing, an outdoor group gathering limit of four people and compulsory use of the LeaveHomeSafe tracking app. Why, are we still in a public health emergency?

Yes, insists the government. No, states University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling, who politely suggests the way forward, including: “Public health measures, such as masks and avoiding crowds and larger gatherings, could be recommended (but not mandated) for people to reduce their risk of respiratory virus infection (including Covid and influenza). Overall I would suggest removing mandatory isolation for Covid cases, no more contact tracing, no more mandatory quarantine of close contacts, and relaxation of all community-wide social distancing measures, with ‘recommendations’ remaining as above.”

Logical, sensible and scientific advice from the good professor, if only those in power would listen. No mandatory masks, compulsory tests or group gathering limits, just contented citizens and swathes of tourists. Honestly, dear leaders, it won’t take much to restore our happiness.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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