If there was an event at the Tokyo Olympics
next month for ducking tough issues, the Hong Kong administration would be clear favourites for the gold medal. The partial relaxation of quarantine arrangements announced last week sounds like a reasonable step forwards but, on closer scrutiny, it amounts to very little.
Nominally reducing the quarantine period
in certain circumstances from 14 days to seven for fully vaccinated returning residents might be helpful for a very small number. However, the system requires confirmed hotel bookings for the whole two weeks and hotels will only commit upon full payment.
If anyone does test negative for the virus and positive for antibodies
to become eligible for the shorter period, then the room which has been paid for is no longer required
for the second week. The returnee will want a refund but the notice period will be too short for the hotel to re-let the room, creating a recipe for disputes.
But, once again, we must beware of losing ourselves in detail while ignoring the big picture.
Hong Kong people need to travel outside the city and visitors need to be able to come here, all with minimum fuss and bother. We are a very long way from achieving that, and last week’s announcement does not bring us any closer. International connectivity is critical to Hong Kong’s future.
Hongkongers must be able to travel freely for a multitude of reasons. Our economy is internationally oriented – our entrepreneurs and businesspeople need to visit overseas markets to nurture relationships and find new opportunities.
The global business scene changes constantly and we have effectively been cut off from it for 18 months. There is a lot of catching up to do.
There are also many pressing personal reasons for travel – the funeral of an elderly friend or relative
; marriage or another major life milestone event; or recovery from the cabin fever of being effectively locked up in Hong Kong.
These have to be weighed against the prospect of a lengthy period of idleness in a quarantine hotel
on return – windows that do not open, a space too small for exercise, unreliable Wi-fi and a common air-conditioning system bringing smells and sounds from adjacent rooms. Small wonder Hongkongers have reduced overseas trips
to an absolute minimum.
The converse is even more important. We want people from outside Hong Kong to come here, either for business or as tourists
. We want companies to set up here, bringing their capital, their technology and new jobs.
Even established companies need to rotate key personnel. There is intense international competition with other business centres
for these activities. How does our city compare in attractiveness?
The administration relies on quarantine, test and trace
, social distancing
and mask wearing to minimise spread of the virus. These techniques have been broadly successful in keeping down cases, but they are not a solution. They are interim measures that buy time. The only real cure is widespread vaccination, and it is here the administration has fallen short.
Four months after the programme began – completely free with a choice of vaccines – the take-up rate
is still less than 20 per cent fully vaccinated. That compares with more than 50 per cent in the US, Britain and Singapore.
Mainland China, which has already distributed more than a billion vaccines
, is targeting 70 per cent within 2021. Clearly, vaccine hesitancy is a major problem for us, and the reason is not hard to find. There are few advantages for the fully vaccinated as opposed to those who simply wear masks.
If we carry on at our present rate, Hong Kong will not achieve herd immunity until the end of next year
at the earliest. This is unacceptable and the government must step in with a firm hand.
How can it be that, in the throes of a medical emergency, two-thirds of Hospital Authority medical workers remain unvaccinated? If vaccination is official government policy, how can it be that – according to my estimates based on the overall figures for Hong Kong – some three-quarters of civil servants have probably still not had the jab?
These two aspects can be addressed immediately using health regulations. All medical workers should be required to vaccinate within one month, civil servants within two. Their relatives should be urged to do so, too. The next phase should be foreign domestic workers
and their employers.
The target must be that any vaccinated person can visit Hong Kong without quarantine
and without being required to wear a mask. Where is our official policy? Where is our action plan?
There is a social justice aspect, too. Many vaccinated citizens loathe wearing a mask but do so to protect others. How long should they be required to do so to protect the health of those who cannot be bothered to protect themselves?
Put yourselves in the shoes of an executive for an overseas company offered a posting in Hong Kong. He calls the family together to discuss. “Mum and I are vaccinated, but we all need to go into quarantine for three weeks on arrival. Thereafter, we will all have to wear masks for another year to 18 months. Did I mention the blood tests?”
No prizes for guessing the family’s decision, but at least there’s that gold medal for Hong Kong.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises