Hong Kong’s health department has said that the definition of “group gatherings” depends on the circumstances, such as whether the gathering was planned, participant interaction and the length of the event.

Owing to the coronavirus outbreak, the government’s social distancing guidelines forbid group gatherings of more than eight people under the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance.

A police officer speaking with a mic and a loudspeaker in the IFC mall. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Police have issued HK$2,000 fines to citizens gathered for a “common purpose,” including protesters staging pro-democracy sing-a-longs at malls, despite demonstrators claiming to be acting individually. A police statement on April 26 said: “Police sternly clarify that as long as the persons gather for a common purpose in public place, it is irrelevant whether the participants have kept a distance of 1.5m from each other…”

The idea was later backed by the city’s Secretary for Justice (SJ), but shareholder activist David Webb has said there is no mention of “common purpose” in the ordinance: “We must ‘sternly clarify’ that neither of these Regulations contains any reference to a “common purpose” as the Police and the SJ fancifully imagine.”

Two young men show their ticket for breaching the coronavirus social distancing rules. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The ordinance states that “if the distance between any participant of a gathering in a public place and any participant of another gathering in the place is less than 1.5 m, and the total number of participants of the gatherings is more than 8, then each of the gatherings is a dispersable gathering.”

Barrister Duncan Ho Dik-hong echoed Webb’s concern, according to The Standard: “Why should this kind of gathering be forbidden if people are far from each other?… [T]he law does not state the fundamental meanings of gatherings, common purpose and duration of a gathering”

In a response to HKFP, the Food and Health Bureau Secretariat Press Office said on Friday that circumstances “such as whether the gathering is organised beforehand, whether there is any interaction between the participants, and whether the gathering only lasts for a very short period of time” are taken into account.

‘Common purpose’

When Chief Executive Carrie Lam was challenged by HKFP on Tuesday, Lam did not address whether the idea of “common purpose” had legal backing.

“We never prohibit people from leaving their home. One of these measures that we have imposed is to prohibit group gatherings of a certain size because large crowd make it very easy to transmit infectious disease,” she said.

In response to the health department’s reply, Webb said: “Do a thousand people on a beach have a “common purpose” because they all went there to enjoy the beach? If so then why hasn’t the Government cleared the beaches?”

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.