I suppose Carrie Lam’s new, near-daily press conference is a response to complaints from some people – usually supportive of the government – that it is not communicating well.

This is not a good idea. Doing a press conference at which any topic can come up is a specialised skill involving careful preparation. The performer must study all the possible questions, then devise and perhaps even rehearse suitable answers. Doing this every day is a full-time job, which is why the task is in most places delegated to a specialist, if it is attempted at all.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre), Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip (left) and Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong attend a press briefing on the Covid-19 situation on March 11, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

If Lam were preparing herself properly, in short, she would not have time to do anything else. Some people might regard this as an improvement, presumably she is not one of them.

Meanwhile, some questions are dealt with deftly, and some are not. Consider the unlikely storm which has come up in local media over the Hospital Authority’s purchase of 1,500 fans.

The purpose of the fans is, in medic’s speak, to turn ordinary wards into “negative pressure isolation ones.” This sounds terribly technical and isn’t.

Most Hongkongers have negative pressure rooms. This is achieved by installing an extractor fan in the window. This sucks air out of the room, creating a flow which ensures that your cooking odours – or in hospital contexts, the noxious expirations of your patients – go outside and do not stink up your living room, or hospital as appropriate.

Substantial houses like mine (we have three bathrooms) have four fans. I do not recall exactly when we last bought one because they are as basic as an electrical appliance gets – motor, fan, switch, housing – so they last a long time. If one dies we just replace it.

The model of exhaust fans bought by the Hospital Authority was available for less than HK$200 online. Photo: Screenshot.

What caused a stir about the Hospital Authority’s efforts in this area is that the fans cost HK$2,000 a pop. Well, you might think, what of it? Presumably these are high-tech hospital-quality fans, designed to conform to the European Authority’s published standards for medical extractors, manufactured in Dusseldorf with precision German engineering and personally endorsed by Sir James Dyson, the patron saint of expensive fan technology.

Not so, alas. The fans came from somewhere north of the boundary. According to the website of the factory concerned, the price of a fan when it leaves their premises is less than HK$200. 

In response, the Secretary for Food and Health, Sophia Chan, channelled her inner Boadicea – or possibly her inner Carrie Lam – and defended the arrangement on the grounds that the government was “at war” with the virus. It was an “emergency procurement” and “had to be ready in a short period of time.”

Earlier statements from the Hospital Authority suggested that this was done in a strange way. The authority had completed the task with the help of “the Liaison Office, mainland authorities, the Hong Kong government, lawmakers and the logistics industry.” This doesn’t sound like the usual procedure, which I suppose involves technical specifications, invitations to tender, assessments of the track records and capacity of bidders and other important bureaucratic rituals.

The Hospital Authority logo. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

On the other hand it also sounds a bit unnecessary. The Made in China webpage has more than 800 fan manufacturers, many of whom seem to be in Guangdong province. You would think that a knowledgeable business person with a phone could have scared up a couple of thousand fans at a reasonable price. There is a difference between paying a bit extra for haste and being royally ripped off.

Oddly enough, the list of participants in this particular disaster was pruned the next day. The Liaison Office, it appears, does not want its fingerprints to appear on this particular triumph.

Neither, it emerged at her daily performance, does Lam. “The government did not take part in the procurement work of the Hospital Authority and so we do not know the details regarding the purchase,” was her answer to the inevitable question. Dear me. This calls for an adaptation from the saintly John Donne’s musings on the theme that no man is an island: “Therefore never send to know for whom the buck passes. It passes for me.”

Lam went on to say: “This should also not be used as the basis of accusations that the government is experiencing problems in internal coordination.” No doubt fans of “problems of internal coordination” will be happy to go along with this. They have plenty of material to play with already.

The first shipment of the Covid-19 oral drug Paxlovid arrived in Hong Kong on March 14, 2022 and was distributed to the Hospital Authority for application on March 15, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

And more was duly supplied with the announcement that two drug companies had been contracted to supply Hong Kong with anti-virus pills that greatly improve prospects for Covid sufferers.

Lam, reported The Standard, “refused to disclose the amount of drugs that the authorities have lined up… or their cost.” She went on to say that “We have procured sufficient quantities…” (that’s “we” as in “me and some other people”) adding that she had been in direct touch with senior people of the two drugs companies.

So the deal is Carrie’s baby? Nope. “The actual procurement was done by the Hospital Authority, but the SAR government has been facilitating and supporting the procurement.” I fear the parentage of this particular brainwave will depend on how it turns out. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” as Italian diplomat Count Ciano put it.

If you associate this proverb with John F. Kennedy it is because he used it without acknowledging the embarrassing source: Ciano was Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law.

Well, no doubt we shall muddle through. What worries me is the continued invocation of “we are at war” as a justification for avoiding rather basic issues of safety. Consider another Lam performance, on the admission to Hong Kong of unlicensed container lorries from the mainland. 

Lorries were seen without local licensed plates in Kwai Tsing Container Terminals. Photo: Video screenshot, via GovHK.

The government had earlier confirmed that it was allowing this on an experimental basis to reduce virus transmission risks and smooth the flow of transport across the boundary. The statement was accompanied by video of a clearly mainland container truck arriving at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal.

What, reporters wondered, would happen if one of these trucks was involved in an accident? Were they covered by insurance?

Lam climbed aboard her warhorse. “In this time of war, every action has to be quick. [We] can no longer follow the way of thinking during ordinary times and abide by typical rules,” she said. 

The important question was what these lorries were doing in Hong Kong. They were “for the citizens of Hong Kong,” and “they offer us fresh food items and other anti-epidemic supplies necessary to our daily lives.” This brings up a little mystery which was not explored at the press conference: since the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal is the place where containers are put on ships and taken overseas, why are our “daily necessities” being delivered there?

No doubt there is a simple answer to that question. There may also be a simple answer to the question what happens if one of these trucks is involved in an accident, but if there is, Lam did not supply it.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on March 2, 2022. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

This is a pity because we are going to find out, sooner rather than later. Even if these trucks were being driven and maintained to the highest standards – which is, to put it politely, not certain – they would still be a menace because the steering wheel is on the wrong side.

European trucks visit the UK all the time and they are notoriously prone to accidents because, however many mirrors and cameras you add, the driver in the left side seat has a blindspot and from time to time someone is in it at the wrong moment. 

If one of these rambling behemoths collides with a full bus who will be responsible? Napoleon is supposed to have said that “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” which is more or less the military attitude to casualties.

War is a dangerous game; losses are unavoidable. If a nasty traffic accident occurs Lam will sadly discover that we are not actually at war, and our government is still expected to keep us safe. 


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.