I think I may have contracted a new form of long Covid. Whenever I hear the words “government announcement” and “revised pandemic arrangements” in the same sentence, I develop a splitting headache. Other symptoms include a sense of helplessness at the lack of substantive progress, dizziness from the rapid U-turns, and shortness of breath induced by the sheer effrontery of refusal to admit let alone account for or learn from past mistakes.
According to my doctor there have been a lot of cases recently – almost an epidemic you might say. There is no cure as such, but I have developed a tendency to avoid the evening news, which helps a little. Perhaps sufferers should form support groups and take it in turns to monitor current events, briefing other members only on the main non-Covid news items.
Short-term memory loss is becoming more serious. It seems like only yesterday that we were closing all the schools in order to facilitate a comprehensive compulsory mass testing exercise backed by a lockdown, all starting mid-March. But here we are at the end of the month and the whole exercise has disappeared over the horizon. In keeping with our policy of disrupting children’s education at every opportunity, the schools remain closed. They will only reopen in the second half of next month.
The mid-term review of control measures, announced last week with great fanfare, was distinctly underwhelming. There is absolutely nothing in it to permit leisure tourists or business visitors to come to Hong Kong for the foreseeable future. One can only feel sympathy for Dane Cheng and his colleagues at the Hong Kong Tourism Board, their job has been rendered virtually impossible. Likewise for the staff of InvestHK and the Trade Development Council. So much for maintaining Hong Kong’s position as the major business hub in Asia. All the top tourist attractions – Ocean Park, Hong Kong Disneyland, Peak Tram etc and the many minor ones -- and the tens of thousands of their employees, will continue to suffer. Many smaller operators in the travel trade have closed their doors, and will never reopen.
Against this background, it was bold of Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po to announce his intention to host a major business conference in November contemporaneously with the Rugby Sevens tournament. Let us hope his confidence that visitors will be able to enter easily by then is well placed. It would certainly be a major morale boost. For the events to be successful, the new administration will need to be bolder and more adept than the current one.
Such relaxations as were announced apply only to returning residents. Even these were less than meets the eye. The place-specific flight suspension mechanism for nine countries (Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the UK, the USA, Nepal) have been cancelled at long last. While lifting of the complete flight ban is of course welcome in principle and looks good on paper, the benefit is much reduced in practice as the government has kept in place its strict rules on suspending flights from a destination for two weeks if too many passengers test positive for Covid-19 on arrival. As such suspensions are so disruptive operationally, even Cathay Pacific – our de facto national carrier, and a member of the home team – has clarified that in the circumstances it can only resume one flight per route every two weeks. Once this absurd consequence of the government review emerged, within hours the administration was scrambling to reconsider. Here comes that migraine.
The modification that captured most headlines was the reduction in quarantine from 14 days to seven. Even here it is necessary to read the small print to get the full picture. As the government power point released to explain the changes makes clear, arrivals are still subject to a 14-day Quarantine Order and will be transported to a Designated Quarantine Hotel. Only if the results of a PCR-based nucleic acid test on Day 5 and RATs on Days 6 and 7 are all negative, will early discharge from the DQH be allowed. If any of those tests are positive, then an isolation order is issued and the second week will be in a community isolation facility. A positive test on Day 12 would result in a further detention period.
Earlier, sheer weight of numbers compelled the administration to allow home quarantine as an alternative to government centres for mild cases with no or few symptoms. Common sense might have got us there faster. Despite the review, this option has not been offered to new arrivals, even those testing negative at the airport (only persons fully vaccinated and with recent negative tests are allowed to board) unless they are coming from the mainland. Given the well documented cases of persons contracting Covid in the quarantine hotels, this double standard seems hard to justify.
The policy flipflops and U-turns have contributed to a loss of trust in the government. Many of those who self-tested positive did not report to the official website, preferring instead to quietly enjoy the home quarantine option on their own initiative. Some have told me they feared a future policy reversal. Such non-reporting has made estimating the true infection situation more difficult.
Existing social distancing restrictions will, following the review, be relaxed gradually in phases starting from 21 April. This ultra-cautious approach contains an element of self-contradiction. After all, from the outset there have been only two possible drivers for boosting vaccination: making it mandatory by law; or by implementing an iron-fisted vaccine pass arrangement. Once the administration had ruled out the mandatory route on ethical grounds, it became essential to press ahead with the vaccine pass. But where is the incentive if all the facilities are closed anyway?
I recently got into a discussion of what changes the international community here would like to see in our covid policies. I was driven to say the worst thing a devoted Hong Kong loyalist could: what the international business community here wants is what Singapore is already giving them.
Whether or not I actually contract Covid itself, I’m going to need that Panadol.