Hong Kong, 12 January 2022: This week at BC&C, with the Omicron coronavirus variant at large in Hong Kong, we have implemented our strictest social distancing regime thus far. We are maintaining rigid segregation of our four offices in Dominion Centre to minimise risk of cross-infection; in-house meetings are conducted via Zoom; no visitors are allowed; tables are placed in the lift lobby for deliveries to be dropped off; everyone must wear a mask when away from their desk. All this, of course, is on top of the existing hygiene protocols we have been observing for two years.
Why are we doing this? Because we are responsible citizens. Because we have a sense of civic duty. Because – even though every single staff member is vaccinated (I’m proud to say) – we feel obliged to do our utmost to adhere to government guidelines. This doesn’t make us special, far from it. Millions of our fellow citizens – despite pandemic fatigue and mounting frustration over an official zero-Covid strategy which is patently unsustainable – are doing likewise.
So perhaps you can understand Hongkongers’ outrage at the antics of Witman Hung and his friends – a bunch of seemingly clueless elitists, senior officials, civil servants and lawmakers – who displayed their utter disdain for the public health effort by crowding into a Wanchai restaurant to celebrate his 53rd birthday. There were 221 of them at the last count, many flaunting social distancing rules, some dispensing with masks and others neglecting to use the mandatory LeaveHomeSafe app.
Witman is Principal Liaison Officer for Hong Kong at the Shenzhen Qianhai Authority and a city delegate to the National People’s Congress. He moves in the right circles. And so the great and good showed up to wish him well, ignoring government instructions to avoid large gatherings. Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui was there, as was Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui. Police Commissioner Raymond Siu, Commissioner of the ICAC Simon Peh and Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang also joined the fun. In all, 13 senior officials and 20 legislators were present.
As was a Covid-infected guest.
Oh dear. Soon enough, Witman’s big blowout was everywhere. Leaked photos showed the birthday boy – a renowned “party animal” – with his arm around Election Committee member Ellen Tsang, crooning into a microphone. Both were without masks, ditto other guests in the background.
So much for “Together, we fight the virus!” Here were our lords and masters, including some of the newly elected “patriots” entrusted to run this city via last month’s Legislative Council polls, flipping a middle finger to the masses and doing as they pleased. And their shameless reaction after being exposed – blaming Cathay Pacific because two Omicron-carrying aircrew members, one of whom broke isolation rules, had triggered local infections – only underscored their aura of elitism and entitlement. I wasn’t the only one laughing when they were all packed off to the spartan Penny’s Bay quarantine camp, although many were subsequently released (to widespread disappointment) after a second party guest was deemed false positive.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam was in full matron mode when she faced media yesterday. Having already censured her errant officials, she announced an investigation into whether social distancing regulations were breached (perhaps forgetting she could simply ask her Police Commissioner). She also vowed to take legal action against Cathay if the airline was found to have exploited loopholes to bypass quarantine rules for its pilots and other crew. Cathay Chairman Patrick Healy, displaying true leadership, subsequently responded with an eloquent and unifying video message to his staff.
But if Witman, his mates and Cathay are in the firing line, so too is Carrie. She has just endured her worst week since the 2019 protests. First, she was at her mixed-messaging best on implementing this city’s proposed vaccine bubble – citizens without a jab will be barred from restaurants and other regulated premises – delaying it by three weeks to give affected businesses time to prepare, then reimposing strict social distancing curbs, giving those same businesses less than 48 hours’ notice.
Next, she sanctimoniously carpeted Cathay management over employees breaking quarantine rules – “You are the person in charge of the institution, just like me being the leader of the SAR” – but two days later insisted she wasn’t accountable for her ministers going off partying. Double standards, anyone? Yesterday, she had to rebut claims that she, too, was guilty of poor judgment for attending a wedding party early last month. She also drew the ire of long-suffering parents by announcing a new shutdown of kindergartens and primary schools in a (heavy-handed) response to the Omicron threat. I have made clear my feelings about school closures on several occasions.
While the fur flies, it is worth noting Hong Kong has cut its lengthiest quarantine period for close contacts of Covid patients from 21 days to 14, both to ease the strain on facilities – fewer than a tenth of the 3,416 units at Penny’s Bay are ready for use – and because the incubation period for Omicron is apparently shorter than previous variants. This reduced isolation, however, does not apply to arrivals from overseas. As Dr David Owens observes, we are beginning to follow some of the science, some of the time.
In closing, thank you to everyone who wished me happy birthday yesterday. I celebrated with a modest lunch with my daughter Marianne followed by a solo afternoon hike. Simple pleasures. After all, my name’s not Witman Hung.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins