Hong Kong, 12 May 2021: Who didn’t love Monopoly when they were growing up? Many a rainy afternoon was passed in the Cohen household playing the popular board game, vying with my brothers and friends to become London’s biggest property tycoon while bankrupting everyone else. It was cutthroat and devoid of sentiment. If you were sent to jail, off you went. No wiggle room, no appeal, rules were rules.
A Hong Kong edition of Monopoly was first made in 1965 and regularly updated. When Boase Cohen & Collins was founded 20 years later, our office location of Wanchai was the cheapest district in the game, immediately after “Go”. By later versions it had progressed almost halfway around the board, urban renewal and gentrification – and perhaps our continuing presence here in Dominion Centre – having made the neighbourhood rather more desirable.
Fast-forward to 2021 and we’re playing a similar game. No matter how wealthy you are or wherever you live, a chance roll of the dice can see you incarcerated against your wishes. A resident in your block who you probably don’t know and maybe never have seen tests positive for Covid-19 and Health Secretary Sophia Chan leaps out, brandishing the dreaded card, “Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect £200”. No wiggle room, no appeal, rules are rules.
To be exact, Sophia sends you to quarantine camp, not jail. It’s hard to say which is worse. At least in the latter you have edible meals and can exercise outside with fellow inmates for an hour a day. No such luxury when you’re detained at our Health Secretary’s pleasure. Amid scenes of disarray, more than 2,000 citizens were carted off to Hong Kong’s largest quarantine camp, at Penny’s Bay on Lantau Island, last Wednesday after the discovery of a small number of Covid-19 variant cases in their apartment blocks. Staff at the centre were underprepared and overwhelmed. There were complaints about the sparse living conditions, poor Wi-Fi, lack of toilet paper, bed boards with splinters, ultra-cold air cons and requests for extra blankets which went unheeded. More than 30 detainees suffered food poisoning.
This chaos, plus petitions signed by 5,500 residents from the affected estates, led our government to a major relaxation of confinement rules last Friday. From now on, only close contacts of variant cases will be ordered into quarantine, for 14 days not 21, while other residents can simply undergo screening and self-monitoring. Most of the 2,000 reluctant inmates were given a “Get Out of Jail Free” card and released in batches over the weekend. The health authorities were wiser for the experience, Ms Chan said, and “we may take a more precise approach in the future”.
It left Chief Executive Carrie Lam in defensive mode at her weekly press conference yesterday. “It’s like we’re working in the dark when determining appropriate public health measures,” she admitted. No kidding! She apologised to those hurriedly incarcerated and thanked them for their understanding, which I’m sure made them feel better. She also announced a controversial plan for mandatory vaccination of domestic helpers seeking to renew their contracts (which had triggered a huge outcry and accusations of discrimination) was being scrapped. However, our city’s 370,000 helpers, having already been forced to undergo one round of compulsory Covid-19 testing, will be required to do another starting this Saturday. This has prompted an angry response from Philippine Consul General Raly Tejada, who says it is “illogical” that the helpers’ employers and families – who live in the same household, after all – do not have to be screened as well. He has a point.
Scrambling for positive news, our Chief Executive has announced the public can watch this summer’s Tokyo Olympics (if they go ahead) for free via five local TV stations. In an unprecedented move, her administration has stepped in to buy the rights after none of our city’s commercial broadcasters could strike a deal. Happy days! This will add to my summer of sport TV viewing, which will include Chelsea’s FA Cup and Champions League finals, since being fully inoculated against Covid-19 and testing negative before and after flying still doesn’t exempt me from this city’s draconian quarantine rules should I wish to attend the matches.
On this topic, our mass vaccination programme limps along. Just 704,600 people – 9.4% of the population – have received their second jab and can be considered fully inoculated. We are light years away from the 70% required for herd immunity. In their latest podcast, Dr David Owens and Professor Ben Cowling make the case for more obvious vaccine incentives to improve the take-up rate. I hope our health authorities are listening. On a more encouraging note, Hong Kong recorded just two Covid-19 cases today, one of them imported, taking the city’s cumulative total to 11,814 infections, with 210 related fatalities.
In closing, I should mention my keyboard will be given a rest next Wednesday as Hong Kong enjoys a public holiday in honour of Buddha’s Birthday. I will write again in two weeks. The break will be spent trying to get to grips with this city’s incoherent Covid-19 policies, since I’m as confused as Carrie. When it comes to baffling decision making, revisions, amendments and U-turns, this government would appear to have – yes, you’ve guessed it – a monopoly.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins