The contrast could not be more embarrassing. While the central and Macau authorities were organising charter flights to bring their citizens home from Thailand last week, the Hong Kong government was ostensibly still in a wait-and-see mood - until Monday. On Sunday, senior security and immigration officials had dismissed the idea of arranging charter flights for the hundreds of Hongkongers stranded in the turmoil-stricken country as meaningless and unhelpful. They insisted they had no plans to send such flights because of what they called 'limited capacity' at the available airports in Thailand. They also noted that Cathay Pacific was already sending flights. Officials were not able to explain why the mainland and Macau governments had not encountered the same problem when commissioning charter flights to get stranded citizens home. Less than a day after the Sunday press conference, the government woke up to the vulnerable situation in Thailand; Permanent Secretary for Security Chang King-yiu said their assessment had changed. There was growing concern that the security situation would only get worse. Ms Chang also confirmed that a Hong Kong couple had been involved in a traffic accident while travelling from Bangkok to Phuket to catch a flight home in the early hours of Monday. The man was killed; his wife injured. The government, she said, was sending more immigration officials to assist individual travellers. The tragic accident is likely to deepen feelings of disappointment, or even anger, among residents about the government's handling of the return of stranded Hongkongers. To put it mildly, the administration will face more criticism for being slow in grasping the severity of the situation. That raises serious questions about the competence of officials when it comes to risk assessment - and their channels of communication, if there are any, with the central government in helping to get a better sense of the situation in Thailand. Worse, officials face accusations of being indifferent about the plight of and risk to hundreds of citizens, making a mockery of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's pledge to lead a 'people-based' administration. With no sign of an early return to peace and stability in Thailand, no government can afford to leave the task of returning hundreds of its residents to commercial carriers. According to an informed source, the issue of stranded Hongkongers has not been raised at the Tsang team's daily meeting since the crisis erupted last week. At the administrative level, the failure of immigration and security officials to get a handle on the problem and come up with early plans to assist Hong Kong travellers raises questions. Coming on the heels of a string of government debacles on issues like the foreign maid levy and old-age allowance, the official U-turn over charter flights has deepened concern about the competence of those who are supposed to execute policy. Faced with one of its worse economic crises, Hong Kong people are gripped with fears about job losses, wage cuts in the immediate term and the city's economic vitality in the medium and long term. There are high expectations that the government will be able to work out immediate, direct measures to help ease the economic crisis. And, in a crisis such as the one unfolding in Thailand, people will be looking for strong and visible leadership, sound judgment and effective administration. The fact that the government has fallen short of expectations will not help instil confidence in officials' overall ability to lift people out of the doldrums. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.