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Trapped aboard this rudderless ship

Hong Kong, 26 May 2021: For the past five years, BC&C has been delighted to sponsor the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club’s Inter-School Sailing Festival at Middle Island. It’s a wonderful weekend, superbly organised, and the feelgood factor is tangible. My colleagues and I undertake the less-than-arduous task of hosting clients and business contacts to a sumptuous buffet on the clubhouse terrace while teams of eager youngsters engage in match racing, looping their agile craft around a series of marker buoys in bravura displays of skill and ingenuity.

Sadly, Covid-19 has put the regatta on hold – and how we miss it! No worries, though, because our trusty government is stepping up with its own plan to have boats going around in circles and finishing back where they started. Citizens will soon be taking “cruises to nowhere” under a proposal being – ahem – floated with operating companies. Fully vaccinated passengers will be offered trips of up to four nights to and from the otherwise redundant Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. Unveiling the initiative, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said ensuring boats did not stop at any overseas destinations would minimise the risk of exposure to Covid-19.

Bureaucratic paranoia, draconian quarantine measures and ignoring scientific evidence have reduced us to this, phony cruises to go with our domestic holidays (or staycations, as hotel operators prefer to describe them). Regular readers may recall I was persuaded to go on a cruise a couple of years ago, from Mumbai in India through the Arabian Gulf to Dubai. We stopped at various exotic cities along the way, which made it interesting and varied. No way would I be press-ganged into a four-day trip to nowhere.

But there’s more. The bogus travel experience has gone to a new level for residents of Penny’s Bay, Hong Kong’s largest quarantine facility, who are enjoying the equivalent of in-flight meals without boarding a plane or even going to the airport. Cathay Pacific’s catering arm is now feeding the camp after the previous supplier was sacked following an outbreak of food poisoning. Presumably, inmates are being offered a choice of beer, wine or soft drink to go with their chicken or fish. 

Real travel, from A to B without quarantine, remains a distant dream. Yes, Hong Kong has done remarkably well in limiting the impact of Covid-19. (We had only two cases yesterday, both imported, taking the city’s cumulative total over the course of 16 months to just 11,835, with 210 related fatalities.)Public obedience, strict social distancing and a virtual closing of our borders have achieved this. But what is our government’s exit plan? Where is the timeline, with dates, goals and targets?

Watching the PGA Championship on TV at the weekend, with spectators swarming 50-year-old Phil Mickelson as he became golf’s oldest major winner, and seeing fans return to stadiums for the final round of English Premier League matches, was a reminder of how other countries, despite initial poor handling of the pandemic, are returning to normal. Their quarantine measures for homecoming citizens or visitors are logical and practical. Widespread vaccination helps, undoubtedly. The US has administered a staggering 287 million doses, with 39% of its population fully inoculated. The UK figures are 61 million and 31% respectively. Hong Kong, with its well documented vaccine hesitancy and the authorities’ inability to tackle this effectively? Just 2.2 million and 12.3%.

In response to the public’s inertia, our government is expanding vaccine eligibility to non-residents for the first time. From Friday, some 40,000 visitors from the Mainland who hold so-called two-way permits and around 13,000 asylum seekers will be allowed to book jabs. The administration has also warned it may reduce vaccine orders from suppliers and will consider donating unused shots to countries in need rather than let them go to waste.

Of course, vaccine hesitancy places employers in a tight spot, a topic recently explored by my colleague Henry Siu. Here at BC&C, we believe education and encouragement are important. I have already spoken with groups and individuals and we are taking this further with a visit to our offices tomorrow from a doctor who has been helping supervise the community vaccination programme. He will meet staff, explain the benefits of inoculation and answer questions. We are grateful to him for his time and assistance. Once again, I urge anyone who has not yet done so, book your jab! You can do it here.

In finishing, I should point out that the vaccination roll-out is not the only government initiative struggling for public attention. Our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been hosting a chat show on state-funded broadcaster RTHK to explain the city’s electoral reforms. Viewing figures are low and critics unimpressed, with one veteran communications strategist describing the content as “hardly comprehensible”. Oprah it isn’t, but I’ll say no more. Our leaders have enough popularity issues without me rocking the boat.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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