It's been five years since I've been in Britain. My first post-Covid trip away from my adoptive home in Hong Kong has taken me to London and then Bristol, my original hometown, and where my 80-something parents still live.
For half that five-year span, I haven't been able to leave Hong Kong. Now that I am in the U.K., the difference in atmosphere is palpable. In Hong Kong, there's still a certain paranoia about the coronavirus. It defines life in many ways. In Britain, things are back to normal, pretty much. Life goes on.
It does not go on in Hong Kong. Mask wearing is still a legal imperative in any public space. People are worried not only about catching Covid, but even more so what the government will do to them if they do catch the disease. You'll be sent to a Community Isolation Facility for seven days of imprisonment, in hastily knocked-together hostels with meager mattresses, shoddy electrics, filthy communal toilets and a poor internet reception for anyone who is attempting to work remotely.
In the United Kingdom and Europe, there's a far more relaxed attitude. There's no longer any testing when you arrive in Britain, or even the need to demonstrate that you've been vaccinated. You're encouraged to wear a mask on public transport, but it's not required. Since Britain is in a heat wave, few people wear masks, unless they have weakened immune systems. A large proportion of the population has had some form of Covid, and everyone has had the opportunity to get at least three, if not four, vaccine doses.
With 75.1% of Brits fully covered with the vaccine, it is time to move on. The figure is even higher in Hong Kong now, with 87.3% of people covered. With rates up as high as they'll reasonably get -- any no-vax holdouts surely won't be converted now -- and Omicron generally resulting in a milder Covid case that hardly ever leads to hospitalization for vaccinated victims, what are you waiting for?
No surprise, then, that Hong Kong stocks are little-moved by the announcement at the start of this week that Hong Kong will cut its quarantine from seven nights of enforced hotel stay to three nights. The Hang Seng Index has barely budged, and is in fact still below its close from last week, down 1.0% from Friday's last trade.
Hong Kong is still behind the Western world in opening up. The three-day stay, which you must pay for yourself, remains a significant hindrance and expense for travel to and from the city.
No wonder then that flagship airline Cathay Pacific (CPCAY and HK:0293) says the change in quarantine is a positive step but that Hong Kong needs to move further. Cathay shares did blip 3.5% higher on the quarantine cut. But they remain down 14.2% from the start of 2020, and a whopping 29.6% from April 2019, when pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong began. They're well off late-2020 lows, but the recovery, with a 33.5% year-to-date gain, is only half-complete.
"We are asking the government to urgently provide a clear roadmap showing the complete removal of all Covid-related restrictions for aircrew and passengers as soon as is feasible to protect Hong Kong's international aviation-hub status," the company said after the shift to a three-day hotel quarantine.
Other domestic-consumption Hong Kong plays such as cheap-eats restaurant chain Café de Coral Holdings (CFCGY and HK:0341) should benefit from easing travel rules. But this company's shares have yet to see any joy, down 36.6% since the start of 2020.
Quarantines served a purpose in the early days of the Covid outbreak. Closing the borders in places like Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore kept case counts low, so health systems didn't get overburdened, at a time there was no vaccine. In Hong Kong, the case counts were low enough, in single or double digits, that the government could trace the contacts of infected people.
Now, though, the city is reporting 4,000 Covid cases per day, a figure that might well double in the next few days. Officially, 1.4 million people have had the virus, just under 20% of the population, but a Hong Kong University study suggested some 50% of citizens have probably had the virus.
There's no way to trace the close contacts of 4,000 or 8,000 people. Go six degrees of separation, and you're talking about everybody. I bet even Kevin Bacon has a distant Hong Kong cousin.
And the virus is doing the rounds. You're not keeping it out. Quarantine is neither keeping cases to a minimum nor preventing the entry or spread of the virus in the city.
So what is the point, aside from driving a little business in the direction of the hotels that sign up for the quarantine program? They are starved of their mainstay, tourists and travelers from mainland China, who must still serve a seven-day centralized quarantine when they return to China. That's if they can even get a visa to travel to Hong Kong -- mainland China has essentially stopped issuing new passports, with the count down more than 90% compared with pre-Covid levels, and will only allow travel to a job or degree course.
I'm thanking the stars I'll get a refund on part of my prepaid seven days in the Penta Hotel in Diamond Hill. The food's not too shabby, apparently, and the rooms have a bit of a Kowloon view. But there's still a waste of time and expense to spend three nights locked in.
Oh, and did we mention the testing? Here's what I will have to go through:
Day of arrival: Take a polymerase chain reaction test, rapid antigen test test at airport
Day 1: hotel quarantine isolation, RAT test
Day 2: hotel quarantine isolation, PCR test and RAT test
Day 3: hotel quarantine isolation, RAT test
Day 4: home observation, PCR test at community center or private lab, RAT test
Day 5: home observation, RAT test
Day 6: home observation, PCR test at community center or private lab, RAT test
Day 7: home observation, RAT test
Day 8: RAT test
Day 9: PCR test at community center or private lab, RAT test
Day 10: RAT test
Test positive for the coronavirus on any of those tests? Off to the quarantine prison with you. One more week of detention, and as much testing as the government thinks you can withstand.
In Britain, the advice from the National Health Service is that if you test positive or think you might have Covid: Stay home. Avoid contact with other people. In particular, avoid people who have weakened immune systems. For example, don't go visiting any nursing homes.
You can go back to your normal activities if you feel better and no longer have a fever. It's pretty much common sense, and the same kind of advice you'd get for any flu or cold. Don't go racing to hospital, don't overload the public-health system, just take care of yourself until you recover.
My family and I are not sure how we will respond when we have to return into Covid paranoia. But the Europe trip has been eye-opening. Once you're awake, and aware of the possibilities life has to offer, you don't take easily to entering repression, depression and petty, overly protective governance again.