Scrum Down

In working out how Hong Kong can bounce back from the economically painful effects of Covid, there are important lessons we can learn from the similar events of 2003. Then the virus was called SARS, there was a worldwide travel advisory issued by the World Health Organisation and the United States Centres for Disease Control warning people against visiting our city. As a consequence, tourists stayed away in their droves and Hongkongers steered clear of crowded places such as bars and restaurants. The second quarter economic figures were a disaster.

The government of the day took active measures to soften the blow for individuals and enterprises. The objective was to help them survive the hard times and be ready to participate in the recovery once the public health situation improved. In parallel, the administration began to plan to “relaunch” the economy. It set aside $1 billion to pay for, or heavily subsidise, a programme of activities designed to persuade potential visitors and local citizens that Hong Kong was safe to visit and live life normally. The programme was put together with the help of representatives from the community including the business sector. It comprised sporting events (a football match against Liverpool featuring Michael Owen, and another against Real Madrid with star player David Beckham) and a series of musical concerts with top names like the Rolling Stones, Santana, Westlife, Jose Carreras etc. There would also be a high-profile conference organized by a top business magazine. The whole would be rounded out by various activities at the community level.

While the plan was being mapped out, it was agreed as a condition precedent that nothing would be done unless and until the WHO and CDC cancelled their travel advisories. This is a key point. It was no good Hong Kong claiming by itself that the city was safe, it needed endorsement by independent outside parties.

All of which is by way of introduction to the plans for the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament, preliminarily scheduled for November.

This event has been important to me personally ever since I went to the first in 1976. I have attended every subsequent one until they were suspended because of the pandemic. The Sevens engendered in all my children a love of sport, my daughter went on to represent Hong Kong as a member of the Girls Under 19 squad which went on tour to Singapore. Every parent will understand how that made me feel. Believe me when I say there is no one on the face of the planet who wants to see the event back in Hong Kong more than I.

But there are some aspects of the planning for the event which I find deeply disturbing. This is not to denigrate the work of the Hong Kong Rugby Union which is working its socks off to try to give us something to look forward to. But having to navigate round the government’s Covid policies is leading to some absurd outcomes.

First up, the working assumption is that quarantine will still be a requirement on entry to Hong Kong (except for the participating teams themselves). Nobody is going to submit to a week in a grubby overpriced hotel to watch a sporting event for a day or two. Even if the rumoured reduction to five or three days materializes, it won’t be enough to tip the balance. Hong Kong is the only city on the rugby circuit to have such a requirement. Fans will stay home to watch on TV instead of coming here. That means only visitors who are already in town for other urgent reasons will be potential attendees, whereas they normally occupy half of the 40,000 seats.

It is suggested the teams themselves be kept in a closed loop bubble as for the winter Olympics, transported on arrival straight to the hotel where they will only mix with other members of their own squad, not with each other. Players will only be allowed out for training or matches, bused directly to and from the venue. Not an experience I would wish on anyone. No socializing with Hong Kong people which is normally a big part of Sevens week.

The capacity of the stadium will be no more than 85 per cent (hence 34,000), since apparently every ninth seat will have to be left vacant to comply with the ceiling of eight persons per group. Patrons must show their vaccine pass to gain entry and – except when eating or drinking – must wear masks. Bearing in mind the problem at past tournaments of ensuring fans in the South stand keep all their clothes on, making sure all 34,000 keep their masks on is likely to be a challenge to put it mildly. Overall the logistics are shaping up to be a nightmare.

But there is something even more serious than the practicalities: what kind of message are we trying to send to the world about Hong Kong’s situation? In 2003 we were trumpeting the fact that the travel advisories had been lifted and the theme was “Hong Kong is back. We are still a great place to visit, come and see for yourself.” This time there are no travel advisories imposed by outsiders, only the ones we are imposing on ourselves. The government’s own policies create the impression that “Hong Kong is not back, it’s dangerous, we don’t really want you here.” This is not the message we should be sending.

How this sentiment will spill over to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority’s attempts to hold a major business conference, also in November, is anyone’s guess unless attendees will be given the “Jamie Dimon pass”.

To my mind the choice is clear: we should only hold a proper Sevens when it can deliver the right message. If it is not possible to do so now, we should wait until it is.