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Much to consider in these testing times

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Much to consider in these testing times

Hong Kong, 12 August 2020: We can all look forward to a free coronavirus test in the next few weeks – should we wish to take one – as the Hong Kong government rolls out a massive voluntary testing programme. This will be done with the assistance of a large medical team from the Mainland and three laboratories from over the border which are setting set up temporary facilities here.

In announcing the initiative, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has promised to protect the personal data of those who are tested and insists no one should doubt the sincerity of the central government in giving assistance. She has appealed to the public for support and has stressed the programme is purely voluntary.

Inevitably, given the current political climate, the government’s move has been greeted with wariness and even cynicism in certain quarters. But, leaving politics aside, there are valid reservations about mass testing from a scientific point of view. Some experts have opined its main purpose is to reassure the public rather than cut transmission in the community. One doctor I know, with considerable experience in this field, says testing should be targeted and that population testing as a one-off makes little sense when we have such low prevalence.

On this latter point, it is worth noting that Hong Kong recorded 33 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, the lowest daily count in nearly a month, and around 60 new infections are expected to be announced later today. If confirmed, this would mark 10 straight days of double-digit increases, a welcome improvement after a streak of 12 days when new cases numbered more than 100 each day. Today’s figures would push Hong Kong’s total infections to around 4,240 with 61 related fatalities. Existing social distancing measures, including mandatory mask wearing in outdoor public places, even while exercising, and public gatherings of no more than two people, will remain in force until at least Tuesday next week.

It is a case of “as you were” regarding masks and also the Legislative Council, which will extend its term for a year following Lam’s contentious postponement of next month’s elections due to the pandemic. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, to whom she turned for guidance on resolving the legislative vacuum, directed that LegCo should continue for another year and that the subsequent term would remain the standard four years rather than being reduced to three, as some had suggested.

But the NPCSC did not rule on the fate of four serving LegCo members who, the day before Lam’s announcement, were among 12 opposition activists banned from standing in the polls. It is now up to the Hong Kong government to determine whether the quartet can continue in their roles and, if yes, whether they should be required to meet certain conditions such as retaking their oath of allegiance to the Basic Law, although LegCo President Andrew Leung is on record as saying he does not think this is necessary.

Of course, this update would not be complete without mentioning Monday’s high-profile arrests of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai and nine others, including former student activist Agnes Chow, on suspicion of contravening the national security law. The two named individuals were released without charge early this morning. From a legal perspective, the arrests were carried out according to usual protocols and those detained were treated the same as any other suspects. Complaints about police actions at the offices of Lai’s newspaper Apple Daily and parent company Next Digital have resulted in the newspaper promising to seek a court injunction to prevent officers accessing materials they seized.

The Hong Kong public are nothing if not resourceful, showing their support for Lai by purchasing Apple Daily in droves – it printed extra copies yesterday and sales leapt from the usual 70,000 to more than half a million – and buying shares in Next Digital, which saw its stock rise 1,200% in two days, thus turning it into Hong Kong’s biggest media company. This prompted calls for the Securities and Futures Commission to investigate. As ever, in these fascinating times for Hong Kong residents, we await developments.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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