Eastern calm, aviation chaos and putting a sticking plaster on a pandemic

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

With COVID spiking again here in Hong Kong, the gym at my Interim Hung Hom Bureau is closed so it’s back to walking the Whampoa waterfront for my morning exercise.

It’s a lovely sight, the ageless splendour of Victoria Harbour to one side looking across to Hong Kong island, the looming urban mass of Kowloon to the others.

Down below in the churning waters, some hardy souls take their daily swim, while by the cross-harbour ferry terminal to North Point an early morning Tai Chi class and an elderly couple line-fishing from a rickety boat add to the timeless eastern calm.

The latest crackdown here shows just seriously the authorities take the pandemic and one has to applaud the strict measures put in place this week. They include the lockdown of parts of the city for up to seven days, restaurants not being able to offer dine-in services at night, and gyms and beauty parlours closing. With the daily average of new cases having climbed to 91 over the past fortnight, it’s no time to go easy.

I’m not so sure though about the overnight news that the Hong Kong authorities have banned British Airways from flying here from today until 25 December, due to the carrier arriving at Hong Kong International Airport on Tuesday with four infected passengers.

According to the South China Morning Post, the punishment was triggered after BA improperly checked one passenger’s documents in London. The same report said that between 26 November and 9 December, the British flag carrier accounted for just four of the 76 imported cases linked to various airlines.

That punishment is tough. Tough on the airline but also tough, heart-breaking in fact, on the many Hong Kong students and others who were due to arrive here before Christmas. New rules mean that airlines flying to Hong Kong with even a single coronavirus-positive passenger onboard face a two-week ban if any other travellers on the flight have failed to comply with control measures. Multiple airlines, including BA, KLM, Nepal Airlines and Emirates are now serving bans.

Is it right that airlines, and their consumers, are paying the penalty? Certainly not in all cases. The latest episode once again underlines the desperate (and I use that term advisedly) need for rigorous bi-lateral testing arrangements to be put in place pre- and post-travel. If you have the virus, you don’t fly. Simple, right?

Alas, no. For months, Airports Council International and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have been demanding urgent government action to introduce widespread and coordinated testing of international passengers – based on internationally accepted protocols and on a risk-based and resource-effective approach.

On 24 September ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira said, “Quarantine and unilateral decisions from governments are destroying efforts to restore air connectivity and, without the lifting of travel restrictions and quarantine, the aviation industry cannot rebuild and will not be able to drive the global economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic.”

That’s 11 weeks ago, dammit. It was common sense then and it’s common sense now. One understands the Hong Kong authorities’ determination to keep this damned disease away but to truly eradicate (or at least minimise) such a problem you have to get to its root.

A proper testing regime – both pre and post any vaccine roll-out – will restore confidence both among travellers and in countries welcoming them. It will save companies and jobs and give a massive boost to economies. You cannot put a sticking plaster on a global pandemic. Eastern calm and aviation chaos. It is an unhappy mix.

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