Watching the total disarray of the government’s quarantine policy over the past two weeks led me to check my dictionary for the meaning of the English expression dilly-dally. (“Waste time through aimless wandering or indecision”). Thus inspired I also checked out shilly-shally (“fail to act resolutely or decisively”). It’s hard to choose between them, isn’t it?
What is really painful is that it didn’t have to be like this. Our doctors and nurses have done a great job dealing with the COVID pandemic, and the public has by and large been incredibly well disciplined. But we have all been let down by policy failings at the top.
From the outbreak in 2020 to the beginning of this year, the government’s action plan could best be described as “suppress and lift”, that is, impose strict social controls to squeeze the number of infections to a minimum, then relax somewhat to spare the economy. The result was a low number of cases, with relatively few deaths, but serious damage to the economy. Not ideal but perhaps the best of several bad options. The problem was the plan did not provide a lasting solution to the crisis, it only bought time until one emerged.
And earlier this year, salvation arrived in the shape of several effective vaccines. While these are not a total answer – they reduce the risks of infection, and lessen the adverse consequences for patients, without eliminating them – they do nonetheless provide a path to herd immunity. Only once this is achieved can the spread be halted and the risk of mutations be minimised.
Israel has demonstrated clearly how an aggressive vaccination campaign can bring life back to normal. USA and Britain, after clumsy starts, are fast catching up and will soon be fully open for business.
Therefore for the last three months there has been only one responsible policy option for the government: go hell for leather to maximise vaccination.
We need a clear decision to make herd immunity our strategic objective within calendar year 2021, and come up with a detailed plan, including milestones, to achieve it.
It is at this point that the difference between the individual’s perspective and the interests of society as a whole becomes critical. From the point of view of the individual, vaccine hesitancy is perfectly logical, yet at the societal level it represents disaster. So we look to the government to provide leadership and act for the greater good. It has hesitated to do so, fearing a fierce backlash from those who must face short-term hardship and confront the tiny (but real) risk of adverse side effects.
We know from experience that we cannot rely on altruism or government announcements to bring us home, as we are around 18 per cent at the moment and need to get above 70. The government can hardly use force to vaccinate people against their will. So the administration must steer firmly, using every reasonable power at its disposal, to achieve the desired change in personal behaviour and mindset.
Start with the obvious one: why are we giving $5,000 to each adult irrespective of vaccination action? Is it too late to tweak the Budget handout so that the first one thousand dollars is paid on first jab and the balance after the second one?
We need a more consistent policy on travel bubbles and transportation generally. It was quite right for the administration to make vaccination mandatory for Hongkongers wishing to benefit from the Singapore deal, and to make clear the same provision would apply in all future ones. But why will they not be reciprocal? Moreover, why not a simple blanket provision that any unvaccinated person arriving from anywhere will be tested and vaccinated: first jab at the point of entry, second on completion of quarantine. The same rule should apply to all Hongkongers who wish to return home from anywhere on the globe.
Let us nail the confusion about foreign domestic helpers. The government announced two “decisions” (I use the term loosely), namely that they should get tested, and be vaccinated as a condition of first contract or on renewal. The first of these was hardly discriminatory, after all every worker in food outlets has been required to get tested on a fortnightly basis for several months. Since helpers’ duties almost invariably include meal preparation, it is only logical to include them. The second was discriminatory, but only because it did not go far enough. Employers wishing to sign contracts should also be required to provide vaccination certificates for themselves and all adults in the household to be served.
Finally let us come to bars and restaurants. Arrangements have been made for them to enjoy preferential operating circumstances according to the vaccination status of their staff and clientele. But the rules are complicated and therefore almost impossible to police. They need to be simplified with a sharper distinction between the different categories. Only then will there be real incentive to push staff and customers in the right direction, and enforcement by the ordinary policeman on the beat feasible.
The most critical factor is perception of the government’s willingness to act. At the moment the U-turns, both real and apparent, create an impression of weakness in the face of possible public opposition. Already bar owners have called for further relaxation in their favour. They should be politely told to get on with it.
Hong Kong is China’s number one international city and a launchpad for foreign businesses into the mainland, and from our hinterland into world markets. For us to survive we need to get life back to normal as soon as possible. We must be up there with the best of our international competitors, not lagging behind.