HK success through discipline – but borders a challenge
27 May 2020: Hong Kong has had just over 1,000 COVID-19 cases of COVID-19 – and four deaths. Experience, transparency and diligence have all played their part. Opening the borders will be the challenge.
Peter Burnett is a senior Managing Director at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong. He is also Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. As a business leader, ICAEW member and Hong Kong resident, he has watched the Hong Kong Government tackle a situation that has, in itself, comprised some familiar elements.
Avian flu in 1997, SARS in 2003, swine flu in 2009 and now COVID-19 in 2020 have created a very disciplined environment in Hong Kong – both at work and domestically. This densely populated territory of 7.5 million residents could have been a breeding ground for COVID-19, he points out, but instead the numbers speak for themselves.
“It has been an amazing achievement,” he says. “The very low numbers are down to both the government and the people of Hong Kong. It is really about discipline.”
And this discipline will continue because face masks, hygiene, temperature-taking, quarantine and all the other measures that Hong Kong knows it has to take to battle a pandemic, are ingrained. “When the government says we should stay at home, we stay at home. And everyone wears a mask. It is built into our behaviour patterns,” Burnett says.
Transparency has also been high. “This is very welcome. It builds trust in the system and the people of Hong Kong have needed to see that,” says Burnett.
Something else that had immediate effect was border closure – and this was a difficult decision to take. Around 100,000 people a day travel between Hong Kong and China, let alone to the rest of the world. Closure will have created significant business interruption and yet it was imperative.
Operations at the airport have been scaled back, although cargo and trans-shipment operations have continued. The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge, which has connected the three major cities on the Pearl River Delta since 2018, has been the subject of tighter border controls since the end of January. The effect has been to reduce passenger flow, contain the virus and help impose quarantine, testing and tracing.
These three measures – quarantine, testing and tracing – have had a massive role to play inside Hong Kong’s borders. The result? “We have not had a total lock-down,” says Burnett. “We have kept going.” There have been restrictions – in terms of social distancing – and some closures, but restaurants and shops have been open, and non-essential workers have worked from home. And it has worked.
There is a good reason that Hong Kong did not actually lock down: families often live in very small homes, rely on small local restaurants and travel on public transport. “We have to have measures in place such as masks and good hygiene so that the population can move around,” says Burnett.
But the success has essentially been locked inside the territory. Hong Kong has done a fabulous job of containing infection but is certainly not complacent. The question of how to re-open the borders and reconnect with the rest of the world is playing on everyone’s minds.
“We will probably open our borders with China and Macau first,” Burnett ventures, “and then there will be bubbles.” What form these bubbles will take is still being discussed.
The measures have inevitably taken their toll. “The aviation, retail and hospitality sectors have been hardest hit,” says Burnett. “Hong Kong needs visitors. We had 84 million tourists at its peak in 2018.” International business travellers, tourists, the trade show sector – they equate to a huge influx of visitors and the Hong Kong economy needs them back.
The Hong Kong COVID-19 economic relief measures have been similar to those put in place in the UK. Hong Kong is a wealthy economy and the government has been spending: personal grants, an employment support scheme, and loan guarantees.
Hong Kong, of course, is a global financial centre and, says Burnett, the finance sector has been doing OK. The capital markets and the commercial markets have continued to operate, albeit at lower volumes. The currency is still strong and so is liquidity.
Some new measures are taking shape – for example, businesses are installing screens in open-plan offices – but Hong Kong will survive the pandemic in much the same way as it has previous outbreaks. It will just be a little wiser.