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The mighty pen writes a few wrongs

Hong Kong, 3 November 2021: Who doesn’t have a sneaking admiration for Viz, the British comic for (not so) grown-ups that is full of profane, childish cartoons and surreal humour? The readers’ letters are legendary, to wit: “I was delighted when the kind people at the Inland Revenue wrote to me recently telling me that my tax return was ‘outstanding’, particularly since I can’t even remember sending it in.” Or this: “I heard on the news that the January storms had cost this country a billion pounds. What an utter waste of money. If anything, they did more harm than good.”

I couldn’t help but think of these gems upon reading the now-famous missive in the South China Morning Post last Friday from our Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan. Her efforts to portray this administration’s latest draconian public health measures – implemented in pursuit of its “zero Covid” strategy – as logical and science-based were worthy of Viz’s inimitable brand of irreverence and satire. Except she was serious.

The Health Secretary was responding with great displeasure to criticism from University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling over our government’s new policy of imposing an extra two weeks’ quarantine on recovered Covid-19 patients. Professor Cowling – familiar to followers of this column for his considered and sensible thoughts regarding anti-pandemic measures in his monthly podcasts with Dr David Owens – had taken to Twitter (@bencowling88) to call the new requirement “ridiculous” and “unethical”, adding it was a “waste of resources and actively harming the patient with no community benefit to offset against”.

Not so, countered our Health Secretary, who wrote to the Post letters page: “Questioning longer isolation of patients to further reduce risk of virus shedding is premised on a small risk being acceptable. This goes against the government’s zero-Covid goal, which aims to prevent importation of cases and spread of the virus in the community. More importantly, measures taken by the government for the community’s interest must not be called ‘unethical’.” Oops, someone isn’t happy.

To be fair, Professor Cowling – who was awarded an MBE last June for services to public health and his research on Covid-19 – was tweeting towards the end of his 21-day quarantine, having returned to Hong Kong from the UK, and was probably somewhat irritated. On reflection, he might reconsider his use of the word “unethical”. But, overall, his comments have my support and seemingly that of the vast majority of Post readers, who responded online by endorsing his views and heaping ridicule on our government.

As Post columnist Cliff Buddle (soon to feature as a guest on our Law & More podcast, watch this space) correctly observed in his excellent opinion piece at the weekend, our city is moving from a “zero case” strategy to one of “zero risk”. And I’m not the only citizen baffled by this approach and bemused at the epic inconsistencies it generates. So our Health Secretary wishes to eliminate risk in our society? Well, we have had an unusual number of hiking fatalities this year, let’s stop people walking in the hills. Some 59 citizens have perished on our roads in the first eight months of 2021, so let’s outlaw all non-essential traffic and make the speed limit 20km/h. Life involves risk, so let’s ban life.

Now that’s off my chest, I should stress there are some new regulations which I believe are sensible, even overdue. Having already made the LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app mandatory for entry to all government buildings, our leaders will soon make it compulsory for any type of restaurant, according to pro-establishment legislator Michael Tien. (On this topic and in another one of those “you couldn’t make this up” stories, three government employees were among five people arrested on Monday for using a fake version of the app as they went into work.)

Further, we are told Hong Kong airport is planning to segregate passengers on mainland China flights from other international travellers in an effort to prevent cross-infection. An unprecedented action, but not one I’m against. Meanwhile, senior business executives and most diplomatic personnel will be stripped of their quarantine exemption privileges from 12 November. If we’re serious about “zero Covid”, this is only fair.

At least Hongkongers (well, the younger ones, anyway) were able to throw off their Covid concerns by celebrating Halloween at the weekend. Party districts such as Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo were packed with revellers in fancy dress. But it turned into a night of horror for four taxi drivers who were detained for overcharging passengers by a posse of undercover police, including one dressed as a vampire and another in a Squid Games pink jumpsuit. An arresting sight, indeed.

You only wish our health officials could be so innovative in persuading – or coercing – citizens to get their Covid-19 jabs. Amid our waning inoculation programme, one sorry statistic stands out and illustrates just how far we have fallen behind much of the developed world in our pandemic response: less than 15% of this city’s residents aged 80 and over are fully vaccinated. Embarrassing. This is one public health action Professor Sophia Chan simply cannot defend, no matter how indignantly she writes to the South China Morning Post.

You will hear from me again in two weeks. Meantime, stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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