London, 14 July 2021: Flight bans, quarantine measures and social distancing regulations are unfathomable to six-year-olds. They see the world in endearingly simple terms, a fact neatly illustrated by a recent video conversation with grandson Nathan. “Gung gung [grandfather], when are you coming home?” he wants to know. I say probably a few more weeks yet. “What about if I come and see you?” he responds, almost causing me to melt. How do I explain the protocols, red tape and hoops of flaming fire through which our leaders in Hong Kong make us jump in order to meet clients, enjoy some leisure time and visit our loved ones?
From the window of my hotel room in London, I see a nation returning to some sort of normality, opting to live with Covid-19 rather than trying to eradicate it. Britain recorded 34,471 new coronavirus infections on Monday, up from 31,772 a day earlier; and six deaths, lower than the 26 reported on Sunday. If the infection numbers – driven by the Delta variant – seem insanely high to Hongkongers who count daily new cases on the fingers of one hand, the British deem them an acceptable price to pay for restoration of most civil liberties. The country’s rapid vaccination programme (about 87% of the UK’s adult population have had their first jab and 66% have had both) has weakened the link between infections and fatalities.
All remaining lockdown and social distancing restrictions in England will be lifted next Monday (19 July), leaving only a recommendation that citizens wear masks in crowded places and on public transport. While urging caution, bullish Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists it is “the right moment to proceed”. For this visitor from Hong Kong – where the limit on outdoor public gatherings remains capped at four people – the contrast is overwhelming. Lord’s cricket ground was full when I attended England versus Pakistan last Saturday; there were almost 70,000 at Wembley for the Euro 2020 final (more of that later); and I will be one of 140,000 spectators at the British F1 Grand Prix this coming weekend.
It is a similar story across Europe as pandemic-weary populations (and politicians) shake off their shackles and resolve to resume life as we used to know it. Some of Hong Kong’s neighbours are doing likewise. In South Korea, fully inoculated citizens returning from overseas travel have been exempt from self-isolation requirements since early May and anyone who has received at least one jab does not have to wear a mask outdoors. In its latest move, the country is allowing most fully vaccinated visitors to skip quarantine if they are seeing family, or travelling for business, academic or public interest reasons.
More pertinently, Singapore – Hong Kong’s great business and commercial rival – is transitioning from its “zero-Covid” strategy to mitigation. The island state is combining a high-speed vaccination rollout with rapid-testing systems for public events and at venues such as restaurants and gyms. Jeremy Lim, Associate Professor of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, speaks for many when he says: “It’s been a really long journey and people the world over are fatigued. We just have to come to terms with the reality as it is rather than where we wanted to be.”
In Hong Kong, meantime, Chief Executive Carrie Lam is standing by for “positive instructions” from Beijing after apparently proposing a new quota system for quarantine-free business travel with the mainland for fully vaccinated individuals. Government sources suggest she could be in for a long wait. All the while, Hong Kong’s business community is becoming increasingly agitated about our city’s draconian quarantine rules and lack of light at the end of the tunnel. For what it’s worth, health officials confirmed just one imported Covid-19 case yesterday, bringing the cumulative total to 11,952 infections, with 212 related fatalities. Some 2,664,700 citizens – just over 35% of the population – have had at least one vaccine dose.
It’s the uncertainty which is killing us, typified by the government’s much-trumpeted concession for fully vaccinated travellers who can produce a positive antibodies test and thus have their 14-day hotel quarantine halved when arriving from certain countries. Phase one of this arrangement is in place, allowing citizens to take the test at a designated clinic before departing Hong Kong. Phase two, enabling would-be returnees who are already overseas (such as myself) to be tested on landing at Hong Kong airport, is due “within July” but is “subject to the implementation progress and latest epidemic developments”. In other words, no guarantees it will happen. And no one seems able to explain why travellers cannot take the antibodies test at a reputable clinic overseas before flying. I will be arriving mid-August from Switzerland, 20th in the World Health Organisation’s global rankings for healthcare and home to multiple world-class clinics, a fact seemingly irrelevant to the Hong Kong authorities.
Of course, I might be more sanguine in the face of bureaucratic ineptitude if England’s footballers hadn’t lost the Euro 2020 final to Italy (on penalties, how else?) on Sunday evening. I was there, riding an emotional rollercoaster, for a momentous occasion which showcased the best and worst of the old nation: a country united, amazing team spirit and moving dignity in defeat versus hooligans gatecrashing the stadium and sickening online racial abuse of certain England players. However, well done Italy, the best team in the tournament and on the night. And to answer Nathan’s question, football’s not coming home, but gung gung is … eventually.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins