The Hong Kong public is ready to deal with low levels of infection in the community, now hovering at 5,000 to 6,000 new cases a day, having learned from living with the pandemic over the past three years, carrying on through the ups and downs, and dealing with restrictions that remain among the most onerous in the world (save for the mainland). It has become common knowledge that vaccination does not block infection but will prevent death and serious illness. The availability of anti-viral drugs is another formidable defense. The public has come to know how to cope with the infections as they come. They are ready to move on. It is the government, which has been trying hard to hew to the motherland’s approach, that is dragging its heels.
Is Hong Kong ready to take bold steps?
Since the start of fifth wave of infections in February, Hong Kong has been caught in the dilemma of prioritizing opening to the world versus getting mainland authorities to ease border travel restrictions from Hong Kong. Until recently, the SAR administration has followed Beijing’s lead – to a point. Abandoning the hotel quarantine requirement on September 26 was a signal that Hong Kong felt freer to go its own way. As international pressure has built up and negotiations with the mainland have stalled, John Lee, the former senior police officer chosen by China to take the helm in the city, is well positioned to take bolder measures to move away from zero Covid.
So far, besides moving on quarantine measures, he has taken small steps, either by deliberate choice or under the force of circumstances. In addition to easing rules for international travel to and from Hong Kong, he has also given small concessions to the organizers of the international Rugby Sevens tournament and the global finance conference that are scheduled for early November, designed as reopening “parties” for the SAR. After first banning food in the stands, the government is now allowing spectators at the rugby matches to eat as well as drink. Finance bigwigs who fly in will be able to meet clients or have meals in private rooms. And if any VIP arrives infected, that person will not be isolated and will be allowed to leave town. Public clamor and private lobbying prodded Hong Kong authorities into making these sensible arrangements, though they have sparked questions about privileges accorded the elite. If this opening up goes well, Lee and his administration may be emboldened to take more initiatives to show mainland authorities and the world what Hong Kong can lift Covid controls without compromising the mainland’s defenses.