Compromise delivers a fragile balance

Editorial | Mary Ma 17 Nov 2021

Cathay Pacific and the government stuck to the middle of the road when they agreed that around 130 cargo pilots who had stayed in the same German hotel where three others had stayed and tested positive to Covid after returning to Hong Kong would have to go into quarantine for 21 days from the last date they left the hotel.

As soon as the trio was confirmed to have been infected with a variant, fears mounted that all cargo pilots may also have to go through lengthy quarantine isolation that, if mandated, would have a grave impact on supplies to Hong Kong.

One of the three pilots was reported to have received a booster dose. Judging from the timing, it is highly probable the pilot was already infected when he got the third jab.

The decision limiting the 21-day quarantine requirement to pilots who had stayed in the Mainz hotel from November 1 spares other crew from the same draconian demand that, otherwise, could indirectly - but greatly - disrupt people's livelihood.

At best, it's a compromise. At worst, it reminds us how fragile a travel bubble with the mainland can be in the long run as Hong Kong's major trading partners continue to open up.

It would be perfect if the SAR were free to cherry-pick what it liked, but this is not the case.

Instead, it is either reopening the border with the mainland or opening Hong Kong to the world. In this respect, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has made the choice, giving overriding priority to the mainland.

Both the government and airline confirmed they had talked through the dilemma and the outcome, frankly speaking, is the most practical at present.

Needless to say, it was never meant to be static since the situation is constantly changing here, in the mainland and other parts of the world.

There is no doubt that, as new situations arise, the measures will have to change accordingly too.

The impact of the 21-day quarantine mandate is expected to be short term since Cathay is sourcing alternatives to accommodate its pilots on a layover.

According to the airline, it is also taking additional steps to reduce the risks, including limiting the movement of crew in general by not allowing them to go out in the first three days after flying back to Hong Kong, except for essential activities.

Crew members have also been told to avoid social gatherings.

As said, although the measures are fine for the present, they may not be so in future as the world continues to open up, with more countries updating their health policies to enable quarantine-free travel for the fully vaccinated.

It can be imagined that the pressure on Hong Kong will only mount over time.

One one hand, there is the need to maintain the travel bubble with the mainland. On the other, there is the sphere of quarantine-free travel that is getting bigger and bigger.

What will happen between the two spheres in future is anyone's guess.

However, at least for the time being, the agreement is the best possible balance to avoid a crippling disruption to Hong Kong's supply chains.

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