Hong Kong officials, lawmakers or Cathay Pacific – who’s to blame for birthday party Covid-19 health scare?

·7-min read

Pro-Beijing newspapers and the pro-establishment camp have been doubling down in defending the Hong Kong officials and lawmakers caught in an infamous birthday party-turned-political scandal amid an Omicron outbreak.

More voices also emerged to lay blame on Cathay Pacific for triggering the latest wave of coronavirus infections after aircrew flouted home isolation rules, calling for the Hong Kong government to prosecute not just the staff involved but also the management of the city’s flag carrier.

But a number of pro-establishment politicians called on Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to sack senior officials found to have violated social-distancing rules to show the public that the government would not fear stamping out wrongdoing at the highest levels of office.

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‘Invisible guests’ haunt Covid-19 birthday party scandal in Hong Kong

“Lam’s political wisdom is now being put to the test. She can’t let the wrongdoers off the hook easily,” a veteran pro-establishment politician said on Monday. “The chief executive should complete the investigation and take appropriate disciplinary action by the end of this week.”

The politician, who asked not to be named, added: “She should draw a line, such as punishing or reprimanding those officials who stayed at the party for more than an hour or did not wear masks while walking around the venue.”

A member of mainland China’s advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the politician said the incident would cause a setback to Lam’s bid for a second term as Hong Kong’s chief executive. The incumbent has remained non-committal on whether she will seek another five-year term.

On Friday, she ordered an investigation into the conduct of the officials who attended the party.

Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui Ying-wai, Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang and political assistant to the secretary for development Allen Fung Ying-lun – all of whom were at the party after 9.30pm, when the person later confirmed as a coronavirus patient turned up – are now in quarantine at the government’s Penny Bay facility.

Lam singled out the home affairs chief, the most high-profile partygoer, for censure as she vowed to take “appropriate actions” against wrongdoers after a probe was concluded.

The Post reported on Monday that Beijing had asked Lam to “take swift action” against officials who attended the party in open disregard to government warnings for the public to avoid public gatherings during an outbreak.

The party at the centre of the public health scandal was for Witman Hung’s 53rd birthday. Photo: Edward Wong
The party at the centre of the public health scandal was for Witman Hung’s 53rd birthday. Photo: Edward Wong

Fourteen senior officials and 20 lawmakers were among 214 attendees at the birthday party last Monday for Witman Hung Wai-man, principal liaison officer for Hong Kong at the Shenzhen Qianhai Authority, which was also visited by guests carrying Covid-19.

All attendees were initially ordered to serve 21 days of quarantine at the Penny Bay’s centre, though some, including 11 officials, were later released after they were found to have not been present when the infected guests were there.

The birthday party has become an embarrassment to the legislature and Lam’s administration, prompting calls for the officials and lawmakers involved to be held accountable for their decision to attend a mass gathering even as the government moved to tighten social-distancing measures amid an Omicron outbreak.

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In its editorial on Monday, pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao warned against any “over-interpretation” of the scandal.

“The government has promised to handle it in accordance with rules and relevant people have offered sincere apology. We should not over-interpret and must avoid politicisation of the incident that impedes the battle against the pandemic,” the editorial said.

It also blamed Cathay Pacific aircrew for triggering the fifth wave of infections by violating home isolation rules.

Cathay has been accused of failing to properly enforce home isolation rules covering aircrew. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Cathay has been accused of failing to properly enforce home isolation rules covering aircrew. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

In its editorial published on Sunday, Wen Wei Po, another pro-Beijing newspaper, also lashed out at Cathay Pacific management for its lax enforcement of quarantine rules.

A key column believed to have been penned by senior editors of Ta Kung Pao urged the government to prosecute Cathay Pacific crew who flouted the rules and take “similar actions” against the management of the city’s flag carrier for their wrongdoing.

The veteran politician who spoke to the Post on Monday said the editorials of the two pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong usually reflected the thinking of the central government’s liaison office in the city.

“But it may not necessarily mean the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the central government agency in charge of Hong Kong affairs, or the nation’s leadership have made the decision on how to handle the scandal,” he said.

Another pro-establishment figure said they believed that Beijing officials were unhappy with the incident for derailing the narrative of a better government and a more dependable legislature newly elected under its “patriots-only” requirement.

“The Hong Kong government has been requesting the central government to resume cross-border travels. Now the hope is dashed because of the current outbreak,” the pro-Beijing figure said. “The scandal will cast a shadow on Carrie Lam’s bid for a second term.”

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Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a member of the Executive Council, Lam’s de facto cabinet, said it should be for the health authorities to reflect on why exemptions were granted to aircrew members in the first place without, for example, requiring them to wear electronic wristbands for location tracking.

“When [the authorities] allowed them to undergo home quarantine, they should have worked out a more foolproof system to monitor their location and made sure their whole family was quarantined as well,” she said.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the nation’s top legislature, said on Friday the source of the current troubles was the Cathay Pacific crew who triggered the current Omicron wave.

He also said Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan should be held responsible for failing to plug loopholes that allowed local aircrew to not only self-isolate at home but venture into the community for two hours a day.

Chan did not respond to the Post’s inquiry on Monday.

Hong Kong shortens quarantine period for Covid-19 close contacts to 14 days

A spokesman for Cathay Pacific declined to comment on the pressure Beijing and pro-establishment media were reportedly piling on the city government to punish the airline.

But Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a senior counsel and another executive councillor, said earlier there were no legal means for going after the embattled airline as entities could not sue a business for “pure economic loss”.

The Post understands that former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who has been meeting various sectors since October to share his thoughts on political and social developments in Hong Kong, had postponed several such gatherings since early last week because of his concern about the potential health risks.

Leung is currently vice-chairmen of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top advisory body. Asked earlier if he was considering jockeying for the top job again, he said he was ready to serve the country and Hong Kong when needed.

Leung did not respond to the Post’s inquiry on Monday.

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