Going for the Gold

If there were an event at the Tokyo Olympics next month for ducking tough issues, the Hong Kong administration would be clear favourites for the gold medal.

The partial relaxation of quarantine arrangements, announced last week, sounds like a reasonable step forward but on closer scrutiny amounts to very little. It is more like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic while ignoring the iceberg ahead.

Nominally reducing the quarantine period in certain circumstances from 14 days to seven for fully vaccinated returning residents might be helpful for a very small number. But the system requires confirmed hotel bookings for the whole two weeks – and hotels will only commit upon full payment. If anyone does test negative for the virus and positive for antibodies to become eligible for the shorter period then the situation will arise that the room which has been paid for is no longer required for the second week. The returnee will want a refund, but the notice period will be too short for the hotel to re-let the room. A recipe for disputes.

But once again we must beware scrabbling about in the long grass and losing ourselves in detail while ignoring the big picture.

Hong Kong people need to travel outside the SAR, and visitors need to be able to come here, all with minimum fuss and bother. We are a very long way from achieving that situation, and last week’s announcement does not bring us any closer. International connectivity is critical to Hong Kong’s future.

Hongkongers must be able to travel freely for a multitude of reasons. Our economy is internationally orientated: our entrepreneurs and businesspeople need to visit overseas markets to nurture existing relationships and sniff out new opportunities. The global business scene changes constantly and we have effectively been cut off from it for 18 months. There is a lot of catching up to do. There are also a lot of pressing personal reasons for travel: funeral of an elderly friend or relative; marriage or other major life milestone event of a family member; recovery from the cabin fever of being effectively locked up in Hong Kong. These imperatives have to be weighed against the prospect of a lengthy period of idleness in a quarantine hotel on return – windows that don’t open, a space too small for exercise, unreliable WIFI, a common air-conditioning system bringing smells, sounds and viruses from adjacent rooms. Small wonder Hongkongers have been reducing overseas trips to an absolute minimum.

The converse is even more important. We want people from outside Hong Kong to come here, either for business or as tourists. We want companies to set up here, bringing their capital, their technology and new jobs. Even companies already established need to rotate key personnel. There is intense international competition with other business centres for these activities. How does our city compare in attractiveness?

The administration relies on quarantine, test and trace, social distancing and wearing of masks to minimize spread of the virus. These techniques have been broadly successful in keeping numbers down, but they are not a solution. They are interim measures that buy time. The only real cure is widespread vaccination. And it is here that the administration has fallen short.

Four months after the programme began – completely free with a choice of vaccines – the take-up rate is still under 20 per cent fully vaccinated. That compares with over 50 per cent in USA and UK, and nearly 40 per cent in Singapore. The mainland, which has already executed more than a billion vaccinations, is targeting 70 per cent within 2021. Clearly vaccine hesitancy is a major problem for us and the reason is not hard to find: there are very few advantages for the fully vaccinated as opposed to those who simply wear masks. If we carry on at our present rate Hong Kong will not achieve herd immunity until the end of next year at the earliest. This is unacceptable and the government must step in with a firm hand.

How can it be that in the throes of a medical emergency two thirds of Hospital Authority staff remain unvaccinated? If vaccination is official government policy, how can it be that three quarters of civil servants have still not had the jab? These two aspects can be addressed immediately using health regulations. All medical workers – government, Hospital Authority and private clinics – should be required to vaccinate within one month. Their relatives should be urged to do so also. All civil servants should be required to vaccinate within two months, with a similar firm steer for their family members. Next phase should be foreign domestic helpers and their employers. Everyone approaching a government agency for assistance should be required to provide proof of vaccination (or legitimate exemption).

The target must be that any vaccinated person can visit Hong Kong without quarantine and without being required to wear a mask. Where is our official policy statement to that effect? Where is our action plan to achieve it?

There is a social justice aspect to this situation. Many vaccinated citizens loath wearing a mask, but do so to protect others. How long should they be required to do so to protect the health of those who cannot be bothered to protect themselves?

For a moment put yourselves in the shoes of a senior executive for an overseas company offered a posting as the regional head for Asia Pacific to be based in Hong Kong. He calls the family together to discuss. “Mum and I are vaccinated but we all need to go into quarantine for three weeks on arrival. Thereafter we will all have to wear masks for another year to 18 months. Did I mention about the blood tests…?” No prizes for guessing the family’s decision. But at least there’s that gold medal for Hong Kong…