Confusion and fatigue in Hong Kong over erratic Covid-19 rules to curb new spike

Hong Kong has shuttered bars, nightclubs and bathhouses from last Thursday till Wednesday amid a new wave of Covid-19 cases.
Hong Kong has shuttered bars, nightclubs and bathhouses from last Thursday till Wednesday amid a new wave of Covid-19 cases.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG • As Hong Kong battles a new wave of coronavirus infections with yet another round of social curbs, a sense of fatigue with the confusing and inconsistent nature of the city's pandemic response is setting in among business owners and residents.

Though the Asian financial centre has thus far been relatively unscathed - with just 81 cases per 100,000 people out of a densely packed 7 million population - the city has encountered more waves than most other places and is entering its fourth round of stop-start restrictions.

"Hong Kong has undoubtedly been lucky with the pandemic so far. What has been missing is a clear, public road map as to how and when restrictions will be implemented and when the rules will be relaxed," said Associate Professor Nicholas Thomas, a health security expert at the City University of Hong Kong.

The coronavirus has been an unpredictable and volatile foe, warranting nimble and quick-changing reaction from governments. But as the pandemic approaches its first anniversary, Hong Kong's residents and business owners are increasingly looking with envy to the structured response systems in countries such as New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore.

The former British colony's comparatively erratic response is deepening the crisis in an economy already on its knees from months of restive street protests followed by the pandemic, they say.

The sharp rise in new local cases in the past week has been linked to social dancing venues, yet officials have closed bars, karaoke rooms and massage parlours.

Like in previous rounds, the restrictions are for a week or two at a time, leaving business owners in a state of suspended animation and unable to plan long term.

"I'm waiting for Friday afternoon to see if they're closing more classrooms," said Ms Stephanie Holding, a mother of three who runs her own business from home. She would rather see a system that lets people "know what's affected and when", she said.

Hong Kong says it takes a flexible "suppress and lift" approach to virus restrictions based on the advice of medical advisers.

But other "high risk" businesses such as gyms and restaurants do not know when they will be asked to close, and only some are required to enforce a little-used health-code app before allowing patrons in. To add to the confusion, school and childcare services for younger kids were again shut down earlier this month - but because of an outbreak of the common cold and not Covid-19.

In other places with different phases or alert levels that determine what restrictions are activated at what stage of infection, "we know we've reached this level and this is what will take place next", said Mr Allan Zeman, an economic adviser to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group, a major landlord in the city's bar district.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2020, with the headline 'Confusion and fatigue in HK over erratic Covid-19 rules to curb new spike'. Subscribe