Getting The Point

In the summer of 1972, I spent a few weeks camping out on the beach at Darwin in northern Australia. The mini settlement, of some 200 young people, was visited by the local constabulary at the insistence of the newly elected mayor. This was despite the police chief having advised him the camp was orderly with no law and order challenges.

The raid produced a few surprises according to the official police report to the mayor. Around 75 of the campers had given the name Robinson Crusoe, and an almost equal number, Man or Girl Friday. Apparently, most of the rest were famous pop stars and there were even a few members of Parliament.

I recalled those halcyon days when the government here introduced its ungrammatically titled LeaveHomeSafe scheme alongside an option for customers to fill in a piece of paper with their name, address and contact number upon entry to restaurants and other premises. With the help of a smiling security guard I downloaded the App and have used it ever since. Those who feared to do so on the basis of some unspecified conspiracy theory chose instead to complete the form. But nobody in my observation made any attempt to check the veracity of the information provided. I wonder how many restaurant customers called themselves Ronald McDonald or Mrs Lam of Upper Albert Road.

When we have all finished having fun with this, we must confront the serious aspects of the subject, especially as the government outlines its preliminary thinking on the next phase of opening up. When dealing with COVID there is a fundamental difference between the interests of the community as a whole, and the interests of the individual. We have mostly blurred these differences up to now but the hard questions cannot be avoided much longer.

As far as the community is concerned, it is essential that we reach herd immunity as quickly as possible. Only then can normal life resume without unreasonable constraints on social behaviour and without the constant danger lurking in the background of sudden massive disruptions like quarantine etc. Herd immunity can practically only be achieved when a very high percentage of the population has been effectively vaccinated. All the vaccines authorised for use so far have some benefit to the recipient in terms of likelihood of catching the virus or severity of suffering if infected. But all carry a risk of side effects. Taken overall, the benefits outweigh the risks by a very wide margin at the societal level.

But the calculation for any individual is different. In Hong Kong we have a very low level of infection so the risk of contracting the virus is slight. Moreover we have excellent medical services so the chances of recovery are high. A rational individual, considering only his own position, could well conclude that the balance of advantage lay in not being vaccinated with its known risk of side effects. Of course if most individuals adopt this narrow selfish approach, then Hong Kong will never achieve herd immunity. Stalemate.

Into this minefield the government has stepped with caution. The first aspect of the new approach which unquestionably makes sense is to scrap the option of pieces of paper which nobody reads: everyone must download the LeaveHomeSafe App. If any senior citizen cannot master the technology, there will be many hands stretching out to help, either from impatient customers waiting in the queue behind, or staff of the venue. No excuses.

Other elements of the government’s thinking are more controversial. Allowing restaurants where all the staff have been vaccinated to stay open longer serving bigger tables with relaxation of other social distancing constraints has a certain intellectual attraction. Adding another layer of relaxation on top depending on the vaccination status of customers is in theory possible but one has to wonder if it is feasible.

Take the staff situation first. As a prospective customer, I find the idea that the chefs who prepared my meal and the wait staff who brought it to the table have all been vaccinated very attractive. As the owner/operator who can now get more tables into the space, and can entertain more customers per table and for longer hours, I too find the idea attractive. The only people who might object – or have objections raised on their behalf – would be those staff who decline to get vaccinated. Already there have been complaints of “discrimination”.

In so far as an individual has a bona fide medical reason not to be vaccinated, clearly there is a case for special treatment. But in so far as the absence of a jab is the “free choice” of the individual, then I have less sympathy. After all, as Oliver Wendell Holmes is reputed to have said “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”.

I think the government should proceed with the staff option. It can be easily checked and enforced. I have little doubt that in practice operators and employees will work this out in traditional pragmatic style. If that involved payment of a small cash incentive then that should help soothe the sting of the needle.

But the situation for customers is different. There are simply too many of them. Relying on self-declaration about vaccination status invites a return to the Darwin beach situation. Making sure on entry that they have all downloaded the App will be onerous enough. Going beyond that and having the staff ask to see vaccination certificates, with policemen coming along behind doing spot checks, well the mind just boggles.

We all want to see the end of this virus and the tiresome social controls it has inflicted upon us. The quickest way to achieve that is to secure herd immunity. If that means the individual must sacrifice to secure the well-being of the whole community, then so be it.