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Inconsistent rules are difficult to digest

Hong Kong, 28 October 2020: Good news! From this Friday, you can dine with five of your friends in a restaurant thanks to further relaxation of government-imposed social distancing restrictions. The catch? You will need to split up immediately upon leaving the premises as public gatherings are still limited to four people. Of course, this is illogical, but so are many regulations as the authorities increasingly tie themselves in knots telling us what we can and cannot do during the Covid-19 pandemic.

From next month, Hong Kong residents in mainland China will be allowed to return here without being quarantined, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced. This is a welcome development for many. Some 538,000 Hongkongers alone live in neighbouring Guangdong Province. But what about Hong Kong residents wishing to visit the mainland? No exemption for us, we must still comply with quarantine restrictions both sides of the border. So my planned trip to Shanghai to see my nephew Jason, his wife Sophia and their one-year-old daughter Isabella remains on hold.

Our city’s travel bubble with Singapore will also open next month, Ms Lam has confirmed. The two governments have agreed to exempt residents of both jurisdictions from quarantine if they test negative for Covid-19 before flying. Happy days! But what about destinations closer to home which would be more within the budgets of families badly affected by the economic fallout from coronavirus? Macau or Taiwan (zero local Covid-19 cases since mid-April), for example. Nothing doing yet, I’m afraid.

It goes without saying that the opening up of more travel routes is essential to the future of stricken Cathay Pacific, which last week made 5,900 staff redundant and closed its regional carrier Cathay Dragon. Our government, it should be remembered, has a 6% stake in the airline, having led a massive US$5 billion bailout in June, and has two “observer” seats on the board of directors. If officials truly wish CX to recover, the obvious first market option would be the mainland, where air traffic is back to near pre-pandemic levels. Why are flight routes to the major Chinese cities still not open? We are one country, after all.

For the record, Hong Kong yesterday recorded five new Covid-19 infections, all imported, bringing our city’s total to 5,308 cases with 105 related deaths. We are told to expect just two new cases today. The easing of social distancing restrictions from Friday will include increasing the number of people allowed to sit together in restaurants from four to six, while the limit for bars and pubs will rise from two to four. Masks must still be worn outdoors, of course, so we can expect some creative face coverings among Halloween revellers this weekend. Asked why public gathering restrictions had not been eased to match the policy for restaurants, Health Secretary Sophia Chan insisted the government had taken a “suitable approach” to preventing too many people congregating. This rule will also apply to our public beaches which, at long last, will reopen next Tuesday.

Our government is not alone in having its decisions scrutinised. Globally, pandemic-weary populations – tired of lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions – are starting to question their leaders’ policies. As previously highlighted in this column, one of the UK government’s fiercest critics is the Right Honourable Lord Sumption, a former Justice of the Supreme Court who is now a Non-Permanent Judge in Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. He was typically forthright last night in an online speech to the Cambridge Law Faculty, accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet of a “breathtaking” infringement of democratic rights. At least His Lordship retained certain freedoms on his last visit to Hong Kong for a Court of Final Appeal hearing, being granted exemption from quarantine. Similar applications we have made on behalf of eminent legal professionals arriving from the UK have, alas, failed to gain traction.

Naturally, no politicians anywhere will be under more scrutiny in the coming days than Messrs Trump and Biden, with the outcome of next week’s US presidential election being keenly awaited, not least in this part of the world. And talking of great American traditions, I’m off to Disneyland this weekend with grandson Nathan. I must remember that when we meet Mickey and Minnie, we’ll have reached our public gathering limit. Unless we take them to dinner, of course.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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