In the 11th Century, King Canute of England, Denmark and Norway took his courtiers to the beach to demonstrate to them that the tide could not be stopped from coming in. The lesson, which some of them were reluctant to learn, is that what is inevitable will happen and the best any leader can do is manage the consequences.
That lesson is still relevant today and applies directly to the Covid situation in Hong Kong. We know the latest variants of the virus are extremely contagious and cannot be stopped from spreading in the community. We also know they are much less virulent, and vaccines provide a very high level of protection. The disease is now endemic, yet we continue to apply policies which pretend it isn’t with devastating consequences for our economy. We urgently need a change of mindset if we are to save our city and our economy.
Every week, more international businesses trim back their Hong Kong operations or relocate entirely. Every week, more longstanding Hong Kong residents, both local and expatriate, sadly pack up and leave forever. Chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu has rightly identified the competition for talent as a major priority to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness. But how can we expect to secure new talent if we can’t retain the professionals we already have? These things we see. But also every week there are the things we don’t see: the decision by an overseas company not to set up here, or to hold a meeting, conference or exhibition somewhere else. A posting to Hong Kong has become a punishment, not an incentive. The cruise industry has dropped us from its schedules for the next three years, and a major technology gathering has cancelled its 2023 event.
Meanwhile our competitors in the region are taking full advantage of our situation. Thailand has just launched a major drive to lure MICE travelers (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions). They used to be the backbone of our tourism industry, in the days when we still had one. Dubai and perennial rival Singapore are also upping their game.
Meanwhile many Hong Kong people are panicking about the possibility of catching the disease, when in fact up to five million may already have contracted it without realising because their symptoms were so mild. Happily, most have recovered naturally, but the sense of panic lingers. Obsessive mask-wearing is the closest Hong Kong has come to an official religion.
The current government has been in office for less than two months and has already made two sensible changes. The cancellation of the absurd flight suspension scheme, and the reduction of quarantine from seven days to “three plus four” are welcome. But we now need to move with greater speed and urgency notwithstanding the recent increase in numbers.
Abrupt major changes are not our style. So let us instead draw up and implement a phased programme of rolling back the various measures we have put in place, and let us announce that programme as soon as possible.
I suggest we start with masks, as they are the most visible symbol of the restrictions, and the fact that we see them everywhere every day helps to feed the sense of crisis. We discuss Covid with experts on RTHK’s Backchat programme almost every week. They are unanimous in saying mask wearing was essential in the early stages of the pandemic but now with high vaccination rates and acquired immunity via previous infection it is no longer as useful. Indeed, by preventing circulation of common viruses they reduce the community’s immunity levels to leave us more vulnerable before the next flu season. In phase one we should scrap the mask mandate for any activity out of doors. Seeing faces in the street will start the process of lowering tension. Phase two cancel the indoor mask mandate and limit to public transport as Singapore has just done. Phase three complete abolition.
Similarly with size of public gatherings. Let us move from four to eight in phase one, then 20 in phase two, then unlimited in phase three.
Somehow we have slipped into an orgy of testing. Those in special circumstances (working in hospitals or care homes for the elderly, for example) should continue frequent testing. But staff of some other organisations, including private sector and government departments, are being required to take an RAT before work every day as a matter of routine. Visitors to some private companies, or wishing to meet senior officials, must first produce proof of negative test results. Those brave souls seeking to visit or return to Hong Kong are undertaking five PCR tests in the space of a few days, in addition to daily RATs. We have got to start winding this back. Phase one routine checking to be twice per week instead of daily, phase two weekly, then dropped. For those arriving in Hong Kong, phase one drop the daily RATs, phase two reduce the number of PCR tests to three (one prior to boarding, one on arrival, one after a week), phase three drop altogether.
The big one is quarantine itself. We should be aiming to scrap it completely for all arrivals testing negative, and rely on the traffic light system instead, viz restricted movement for the first seven days. In the meantime, allowing quarantine at home is an obvious first step.
I have been described by some as “not a team player” because of my constant criticism of the Covid restrictions. But the truth is we are continuing to score own goals. In such circumstances, is it the player who speaks up or the one who remains silent who is the more loyal team member? One final thought: can we scrap the dismal daily press conference and make it weekly instead, with daily press releases.
The most urgent change we need is in mindset: the acceptance that Covid is here to stay and the only question is how best to live with it. Thank you King Canute.