How a birthday party exposed Hong Kong officials to the harsh reality of zero-Covid

By posting live on Facebook on Saturday, Ho, known for his faithful pro-establishment views, slapped his hand on the table and shook his finger angrily. The city’s uncompromising Covid-19 strategy was as unhealthy as “sand castles on the beach,” he said.

“The government’s handling of cases is utterly outrageous, utterly disorderly!” he said in another post that night.

Ho was among dozens of Hong Kong bureaucrats and lawmakers who were ordered quarantined last week after they were potentially exposed to Covid-19 at an official’s birthday party on January 3.

More than 200 people attended the event at a Spanish restaurant, at least one of which has been confirmed positive with Covid-19. An investigation is underway to determine if the restaurant or any of the officials present broke any rules.

Hong Kong, along with mainland China, is one of the few places that still follows a strict zero-Covid model. The city is largely closed to the outside world, with the government doubling its goal of eliminating all local cases of the virus in hopes of reopening its border with mainland China.
Strict restrictions, a sweeping track, tracking and testing regime and strict border measures, including a 21-day quarantine for almost all arrivals, have kept the infection rate and death toll remarkably low for a city of 7.5 million. But the controversial and divisive measures have also served to isolate Hong Kong and have taken a toll on international companies and any citizen wishing to travel.
In Hong Kong, anyone who tests positive for the virus or is considered to be close to a confirmed case serious consequences.

Positive cases are sent to the hospital, regardless of whether they have symptoms. They can only leave after testing negative for the virus twice in a row, after which they must complete another 14 days of isolation in a government camp.

Close contacts – such as Ho and the party officials – also face weeks of isolation and several tests at a government facility.

In his video, Ho did not apologize for going to the party, which ignored government guidance to avoid large gatherings amid Hong Kong’s first local outbreak of coronavirus cases in nearly three months.

Residents are queuing up to be tested for Covid-19 in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, on January 9th.

Instead, the 59-year-old lawmaker had a long list of complaints about his experience at the Penny’s Bay government quarantine center.

It was late at night, but he had not eaten dinner. He said he was not allowed to drive to the facility, authorities had taken too long to arrange transportation and the rules were too strict.

The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, should resign because of the party scandal, he said.

The current Covid outbreak in Hong Kong, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, has been traced to infected flight crew members from Hong Kong’s flagship, Cathay Pacific, who violated the isolation rules by going to restaurants and bars.

In response, the government last week introduced new restrictions, including closing bars and suspending dining at restaurants after 6 p.m.

Lam criticized Cathay’s top management for the actions of its staff, saying the government would take legal action against the airline if necessary. “While management may not be aware of all the actions each employee takes, it is not an excuse not to be blamed,” she said.

The new restrictions have heightened public frustration over the pro-Beijing government, which many consider out of touch with local needs.

After last year’s “China-only patriots” election, the city’s legislature consists exclusively of pro-Beijing or pro-establishment members.

And as the details of the birthday party surfaced, the public outcry grew louder, and many called it alleged hypocrisy.

“When the fire was at its height, were you still attending such a large gathering? Are you encouraging the public to do the same as you?” a top commentary read under Ho’s Facebook video.

Many of the officials who attended the party have publicly apologized and promised to be more careful in the future. They include Hong Kong Police Commissioner, Finance Minister, Anti-Corruption Commissioner and Interior Minister.

But almost as quickly as they had been quarantined, Ho and several other officials were released after one of the cases linked to the party was considered a false positive.

Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam at a news conference on January 11.

“They made me wait all day and first told me that now I can go!” said Ho on Facebook. “And they can only send me to the Tsing Yi MTR station – if that was the case, they should have told me so earlier so I could get a driver to come and pick me up!”

On Monday, the government shortened its policy with a 21-day quarantine for close contacts to 14 days, citing a lack of capacity and the shorter incubation period for the Omicron variant.

Lam said the party scandal was a “deep disappointment”. Pending the investigation, she would intervene if officials were determined to have broken the rules, she added.

But contrary to her previous comments about Cathay Pacific, she stopped taking personal responsibility.

Accountability “does not mean that I am responsible for the decisions and actions of my colleagues,” she said on January 6, adding that the party was “a private event.”

At a news conference Tuesday, Lam admitted she had attended a wedding banquet in late November or early December, but urged the public to avoid “troubleshooting.”

There had been “criticism of the way we handle this epidemic,” Lam said, but she defended the government’s harsh anti-Covid stance.

“There is no point in saying who is to blame and who is the source of all these problems because the problems will arise as we continue to fight the epidemic,” she said.

“The importance is that we maintain vigilance to enforce, and we punish people who fail to comply by issuing sanctions and also taking them to court.”

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