Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Cliff Buddle
My Take
by Cliff Buddle

There must be a middle way between the virus extremes

  • Britain’s plan to lift almost all Covid-19 restrictions has attracted criticism. In contrast, Hong Kong has been turned into a fortress in a bid to achieve the ‘zero case’ target

The staging of international sports events during the pandemic has sparked superspreader concerns, but there is no doubting the joy they have brought to fans around the world.

Football supporters in Hong Kong will be up at 3am tomorrow to watch, bleary-eyed, the climax of the Euro 2020 championships, which has seen 24 national teams compete in 11 European cities over the last month.

The final between England and Italy is eagerly anticipated. In England, the team’s achievement in reaching a major final for the first time since 1966 transcends sport. The heroic failures of the past 55 years have become part of the national consciousness. The excitement is felt no less in Italy, a nation with a proud footballing heritage.
There will be more than 60,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium for the match. Spectators have been allowed into venues throughout the tournament, to varying degrees. Those at Wembley are required to either be vaccinated or tested. However, the scenes of tightly packed supporters enthusiastically singing and hugging with barely a mask in sight comes as a shock to Asian viewers. Then there are the garden parties, the pubs, the fan zones and celebrations. So much for social distancing.

The climax of the tournament comes at a time when Britain is facing a surge in Covid-19 cases driven by the more easily transmissible Delta variant. Daily cases have risen to more than 30,000. It is roughly the equivalent, taking population size into account, of Hong Kong having 3,000 cases a day.

But the relatively relaxed approach in Britain is just a foretaste of what is to come. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning “freedom day” on July 19, when almost all Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted. Even the wearing of masks will be a personal choice.

The thinking is that we need to learn to live with Covid-19 and get on with our lives. The death rate and number of patients hospitalised is expected to be much lower than in the past, despite the alarming rise in cases. This is because more than 64 per cent of Britain’s adult population have been fully vaccinated.

But the lifting of most restrictions during a fresh wave of Covid-19 seems foolhardy. It is a bold, although potentially dangerous experiment, that has brought criticism from worried health experts and hospital staff. The virus is spreading among the unvaccinated young fuelling fears that new variants will emerge.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, where people are quick to register for government handouts but slow to get jabs, we are at the other extreme. There has not been a local case for more than a month. Little more than 23 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. The city has been turned into a fortress in a bid to keep variants out and achieve the ambitious “zero case” target believed to be required for opening the border with the mainland.

This has left many residents stranded overseas by flight bans, while the prospect of up to three weeks quarantine makes foreign travel from Hong Kong impractical if not impossible. We are trapped in a big bubble.

There is a need to find a middle way between these two extremes. That, no doubt, depends on persuading people to have the jabs. Singapore appears to be on the right track, cautiously moving away from the obsession with case numbers and quarantine as vaccination levels rise. We can all relate to the remark by Singaporean officials that its residents are “battle weary” after 18 months of restrictions. But the policy shift has prompted some pro-establishment lawmakers in Hong Kong to call for plans for a travel corridor with the Lion City to be scrapped.

So we are stuck in Hong Kong with sport at least offering some much-needed entertainment. Football in England might, as the popular anthem suggests, be “coming home”. Hopefully the virus won’t be following in its wake. But for many of us in Hong Kong, we just want to visit home – or anywhere, for that matter.