Traffic Lights

In the past few days there has been some welcome clarification of just what is and what is not included in the proposed “traffic light” addition to the Leave Home Safe app for controlling spread of Covid.

Most important, chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu has confirmed that any change to the software will only be for public health reasons, not for any other purpose. This was an essential assurance. Ultimately, minimizing spread of the pandemic depends on cooperation of the community. The slightest whiff of the change being used to smuggle in extra objectives would have forfeited the required goodwill.

But there remain some areas where further detail is needed. For example, based on my personal experience I hope we can have some assurances that there will be substantial improvements to the government’s IT infrastructure. When I contracted the virus last month, the first 20 attempts to register on the official website from the home computer failed, apparently on the grounds of misreporting my ID card number. I do not pretend to be adept at technology but this is one of the few areas where I am confident of my knowledge. Moreover, the nurse at the Covid clinic, well versed in such matters, also failed several times to complete the registration using my phone. Only at the fifth attempt was she successful.

Upon return home I received follow up messages instructing me to register on a government website to answer further questions. Typing in the address given generated the response “No such page”. Using the phone instead of the computer achieved access, but gave rise to requirements beyond my capability. I must admit I gave up.

Another area for further clarification is how a Hongkonger can acquire a green light. We know who gets a red one – people under quarantine who shouldn’t be out -- and who gets a yellow one – people whose movements are restricted. But the mainland system upon which ours is to be based also has a green one. Will everyone who has the app on their phone be deemed to be green if they are not red or yellow, or will this have to be proved separately? Will this mean a city-wide PCR testing operation like the one conducted last week in Macau, combined with an identity proving exercise? This needs to be spelled out with a clear explanation either way as the scheme is finalised.

Important as these matters are, there is an underlying issue behind the detail which is vital in determining the future of our city as an international business centre. To highlight this let me set out the views of the international community as to desirable long term objectives. The aim should be to reach a situation of no quarantine, no tests, no checks, and no masks. Some of our competitors in the region have already reached this situation. Common sense suggests we cannot hope to achieve all these at the same time. So we may have to suspend progress in some aspects in order to secure success in others. All understood. But we must be seen to be moving forward.

The question remains whether the extensive social restrictions of the past two and a half years are a temporary set of measures to get us over the crisis. Or whether we see some of them as permanent changes to our way of life. Take quarantine: all the talk has been of allowing returning residents to stay home for all or part of the seven days, or of shortening the overall period or splitting it into some days in the hotel plus some under scrutiny. These discussions are welcome as interim improvements, but the ultimate objective must be complete abolition.

As regards tests, all the talk has been of more of them with PCR replacing RAT. OK provided that is an interim step towards complete cessation, not OK if the future holds multiple sticks up the nose and to the back of the throat. Likewise with checking temperature and vaccination status on entry to premises.

Then there is the issue of mask wearing. Recently I have noticed a change in public mood towards compliance. Some months ago anyone whose mask was not worn correctly could expect to be publicly berated by a self appointed vigilante. Now the public seem more relaxed. But I have yet to hear a single official speak about ending the mask mandate.

Important economic activities are starting to drift away from Hong Kong. The exhibition industry recently petitioned the chief executive to report that some major events had been lost, hopefully on a temporary basis but expressing fear they might never return unless policies were amended.

Similarly with sporting events. The world snooker championship is a natural for Hong Kong. We and the mainland have several of the world’s top players for both men and women – including the number one lady. The scheduled August event has been pushed back to October but there are doubts it will go ahead even then under our present regime. The same clouds hover over the Rugby Sevens, despite the keenness at top government levels to combine it with an important business conference in November.

Singapore recently reported over 24,000 cases in a single day. The health minister said the situation was manageable, part of the price for opening up. On that same day Hong Kong had about one tenth the number of cases, our daily press conference was doomladen.

So it comes down to mindset. We have some of the highest rates of vaccination, and immunity through previous infection, in the world. If adopting the traffic light system is just another layer of control, then forget it. But if it will give us the confidence to reclaim our title of Asia’s World City, then let’s go for it.