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Wednesday, May 05, 2021, 00:17
Policymakers must wear shoes of those affected
By Ho Lok-sang
Wednesday, May 05, 2021, 00:17 By Ho Lok-sang

A key reason that some businesses succeed and others fail is that the former put themselves in the shoes of their clients and the latter do not. The principle of putting oneself in the shoes of those served also applies to policymaking.   

The special administrative region government last week announced the arrangements for “vaccine bubbles” for Hong Kong’s eateries, which have been suffering badly from multiple restrictions imposed since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Under the proposal, if all staff at a restaurant have received at least one shot of an approved vaccine, eateries can designate a zone for guests willing to use the LeaveHomeSafe app and they will be allowed to dine until midnight with six at a table.    

Moreover, if all staff have received two vaccine shots and had waited for 14 days to generate sufficient antibodies, guests will be allowed to eat until 2 am with eight at a table in a designated zone in the restaurant, provided that they have taken at least one shot and use the LeaveHomeSafe app.   

Being able to operate until 2 am and with eight-person tables sounds great. But many restaurant owners have difficulty complying with the proposed rules.     

Although the pandemic appears to be well under control on the mainland and new cases in Hong Kong have largely been imported cases, some cases with an unknown source are being reported sporadically, and at least one involved a new strain that might be resistant to current vaccines. There is obviously a need to be cautious. But our businesses have made huge sacrifice and their sacrifice appears to have been made in vain because the government did not do its job well. This time it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the quality of quarantine as well as the timeliness and quality of tests.  

Hong Kong has come a long way in containing the pandemic. We have now closed many loopholes that had been left open. During the early days, sadly, while we imposed severe restrictions on business operations in restaurants, bars, party halls, etc., we left significant loopholes in blocking the imported cases

Hong Kong has come a long way in containing the pandemic. We have now closed many loopholes that had been left open. During the early days, sadly, while we imposed severe restrictions on business operations in restaurants, bars, party halls, etc., we left significant loopholes in blocking the imported cases. As a result, these sectors sacrificed in vain. We relied almost exclusively on quarantine at home, and we had rejected the idea of quarantining in hotels. We also granted exemptions to many people who work in the transport sector. As a result, we have had altogether four waves of infections. The first wave had peaked at 80 cases a day on March 29 and then fell gradually to zero by the end of April 2020. A second wave came, however, and peaked at 173 on July 22. Only then did Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee acknowledge that the government’s quarantine policy granting exemptions to certain categories of visitors may have been behind the coronavirus surge. The exemption policy was tightened but failed to stop the onset of the third wave of infections, which finally peaked at 115 on Nov 29.

It was only after the third wave had struck, and starting on Dec 25, 2020, that the SAR government tightened quarantine and COVID-19 testing rules, and required people arriving in Hong Kong to undergo compulsory quarantine for 21 days in designated quarantine hotels.   

So far the latest effort has brought local infection numbers down significantly to zero or low single digit numbers. Anxious that the more infectious and more dangerous strains of the virus could cause havoc in Hong Kong, the SAR government decided to ban flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines for 14 days starting April 21.    

I would advise that, instead of a complete ban for two weeks, it may be better to schematically reduce the number of inbound flights from “highly dangerous places” per week so as to ensure that the number of potentially infected visitors can be handled properly. This means that, since India is evidently much more dangerous than the Philippines, the frequency of flights from India should be reduced much more than those from the Philippines. This also means that if our capacity to handle the high-risk visitors has gone up relative to the perceived risks of the country concerned, we can increase the frequency. On the other hand, if our capacity has been pushed to the limit, then the frequency will need to be adjusted downward. 

Such a “measured response” is generally better than a “ban” or “no ban” decision. At the end of the 14-day ban, would you then allow flights from India to come to Hong Kong bringing hundreds of potentially infected people here?    

Some of our experts in epidemiology and respiratory diseases have pointed out various potential loopholes that might lead to test samples not properly collected or not properly tested. They have also pointed out how guests being quarantined might contract the virus in the hotels. If quarantine is properly completed and released guests are proved to be virus-free, and if local cases have been kept to zero for 28 days, we should start opening up our restaurants and other businesses, keeping any remaining restrictions to a minimum.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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