Hong Kong’s leader has expressed “deep disappointment” at some of her top officials for blatantly ignoring the government’s own advice on avoiding large gatherings in the middle of a worrying Omicron outbreak to attend a birthday party that exposed them to a guest suspected to be infected with Covid-19.
Confirming an exclusive Post report that home affairs chief Caspar Tsui Ying-wai would be sent to quarantine at Penny’s Bay – an embarrassing first for a principal official – as a close contact of the preliminary-positive case, a grim-looking Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor singled him out for censure on Thursday.
“I am very disappointed, because this anti-pandemic work has persisted for so long, so many of us have been working so hard to fight against the pandemic, so as principal officials of the administration, we should lead by example and refrain from taking part in private events,” Lam said.
The scandal erupted just days after Lam summoned top Cathay Pacific officials to chastise them over aircrew flouting pandemic rules and causing a community cluster of the Omicron variant.
Those attending the party at Spanish tapas bar and restaurant Reserva Iberica in Wan Chai to celebrate the 53rd birthday of Witman Hung Wai-man, principal liaison officer for Hong Kong at the Shenzhen Qianhai Authority, included not just top officials but also pro-establishment lawmakers and politicians, with the Post identifying at least 10 of them present at different parts of the evening.
Sources told the Post that many other guests were legislative assistants and others involved in political work. On Thursday evening, the government headquarters at Tamar and the Legislative Council and its extended offices underwent cleaning and disinfection.
At a press conference, Lam recounted how health officials had already warned about the surge in local infections and urged the public to follow social-distancing rules, even advising against removing masks for photo-taking.
It was clear the bureaucrats had failed to heed these warnings by attending “clearly a private event, and not a function required by public duty”, she said.
Lam was asked repeatedly whether she ought to take responsibility for the embarrassing and potentially dangerous scandal to the establishment, with the media citing her own comments on how Cathay’s senior management had to be held accountable.
Two days earlier, Lam had explained her view: “As senior management, they may not know every act of their employees, but this cannot be a liability-escape clause. As head of an organisation, just like me as the [Hong Kong] chief, I have to take responsibility for everything.”
But on Thursday, she refused to be drawn into accepting the comparison or into making a public apology, insisting the ministers themselves had to take responsibility for their actions.
“Just like if people have violated the quarantine rule and left home, they would also have to take responsibility … As for individual ministers’ bad performance in this incident, I as the chief executive will take appropriate actions, but I cannot disclose what they are today.”
She said as the city’s leader she would take overall responsibility for anti-pandemic work, but that it would be “bad for governance” if rule-breaking bureaucrats could “hide behind her”, so she would not take responsibility for their personal wrongdoings.
Noting how the Food and Health Bureau had on New Year’s Eve advised the public to avoid mass gatherings and not to remove their masks to take pictures, Lam said: “Why do colleagues not follow the advice of the secretary for food and health? How can they set a good example for Hong Kong?”
Investigations by her office found 10 bureaucrats had attended the party in Wan Chai.
Tsui stayed at the party beyond 9.30pm when the patient arrived, Lam said, while eight other officials had proven they left the venue before that time, by showing their contact-tracing app records, Octopus card transactions or records by their private drivers.
The home affairs secretary, who issued an apology soon after Lam’s press conference, will be spending a full 21 days at Penny’s Bay, the duration required for close contacts, but Lam said the bureau’s operations would not be affected.
The eight officials who left before 9.30pm were: Tsui’s deputy Jack Chan Jick-chi; Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu and his deputy Joseph Chan Ho-lim; Undersecretary for Innovation and Technology Chung Wai-keung; Police Commissioner Raymond Siu Chak-yee; Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Simon Peh Yun-lu; and Undersecretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Clement Woo Kin-man.
Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang failed to show any proof of his arrival and departure time and needed to be investigated by health officials to see if he was a close contact. A source said Au was only at the party briefly to send his regards to Hung near the entrance.
Lam said: “Au told us he arrived after 9.30pm, only stayed for a very short time, and did not enter the restaurant’s core area. The Centre for Health Protection has a guideline on how a person is defined as a close contact of a Covid case, including how long the person stayed, under what circumstances and what the person did. We will let the centre investigate his case.”
Although not among those named by Lam, Allen Fung Ying-lun, political assistant to the development secretary, later apologised after confirming he attended the party after about 7pm, and would have to quarantine at Penny’s Bay with three family members.
Lam was not asked how closely she had interacted with Tsui and if the governing team had undergone testing.
At a separate press briefing, the centre revealed the preliminary-positive patient at the party was a 37-year-old woman. She lives in Causeway Bay with her 59-year-old mother, who was confirmed as infected on Thursday. The mother’s case has been linked to an Omicron variant cluster originating from an infected flight attendant.
Soon after Lam’s rebuke, Tsui took to Facebook to apologise to the central government, the chief executive, the governing team, his bureau colleagues and Hongkongers for “failing to hold fast to his position at a critical time”, adding he would “reflect sincerely and deeply” during quarantine.
A party attendee said the restaurant – on the first floor of the Causeway Centre building on Harbour Road – was classified as Type D under social-distancing rules, which meant up to 240 participants could join a banquet as long as at least two-thirds of them had received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
“Finger food was provided to guests. People wore masks most of the time except when they drank and ate,” the source said, adding that each table only seated six to eight guests, even though up to 12 are allowed in Type D restaurants.
In a late-night statement, Hung apologised for the “inconvenience” caused by the attendance of officials and guests and the impact it had on the city’s anti-pandemic work.
He said the event took place from 6pm to 11.30pm on Monday, and had complied with regulations, including reminding guests to use the “Leave Home Safe” Covid-19 risk exposure app, and asking them to be vaccinated. He said a rapid test had returned a negative result.
A photo obtained by the Post shows guests not wearing their masks, with Hung singing beside an attendee, accountant Ellen Tsang Fung-chu, a member of the city’s 1,500-strong Election Committee. Tsang later said she was “deeply sorry” for the incident and was self-quarantining at home.
An invitation seen by the Post asked guests not to put photos on social media.
Among lawmakers and politicians spotted were: the New People’s Party’s Judy Chan Ka-pui, Lai Tung-kwok and Eunice Yung Hoi-yan; the Federation of Trade Unions’ Kwok Wai-keung; the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong’s Nixie Lam; and independents Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, Nelson Lam Chi-yuen, Chan Pui-leung, Johnny Ng Kit-chong and Kenneth Fok Kai-kong.
They were all from the new Election Committee constituency and were sighted before 9.30pm.
New lawmaker Rock Chen Chung-nin said a consultant working in his office had been in contact with a preliminary-positive case on Monday night for “fewer than 15 seconds”, but did not make clear where that took place. The consultant also visited Legco on Wednesday, Chen said.
Two other lawmakers, Benson Luk Hon-man and Deacon Chiu Te-ken, also confirmed in public statements they had attended.
In a statement, the opposition Democratic Party said the officials should feel “ashamed” of themselves for their “selfish acts”, and demanded harsher punishments for Tsui.
“If there are more violations of anti-pandemic rules found during the probe, Tsui should be held accountable and resign,” it said.
Meanwhile, an emerging coronavirus cluster originating from a dance group expanded to 14 cases, with four more infections confirmed on top of four earlier ones. Six preliminary-positive cases linked to the cluster were also reported.
Authorities confirmed a total of 33 new Covid-19 cases, 28 of which were imported with the other five linked to imported infections. More than 30 preliminary-positive cases were also reported. The official tally stands at 12,832, with 213 related deaths. There are 14o confirmed Omicron cases.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said an open expression of disappointment from a chief executive to a minister was unprecedented and served as harsh punishment.
Until more details about the party were available – such as whether social-distancing rules were clearly flouted – Lau said further actions from Lam or Tsui’s resignation were not yet needed.
“The case definitely embarrassed the chief executive and the government, which are set to face public criticism for setting bad examples.”
Additional reporting by Christy Leung, Jeffie Lam, Olga Wong and Danny Mok
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.