Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:04 pm on 19th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 2:04 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, for tabling this timely debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly mentioned, since the tabling of this debate, events have moved on apace, and it is right that, when we look at the challenges we face on the domestic front, we also cast our eye across the globe to see the how different parts of the world are meeting the challenge of Covid-19—the coronavirus—and the impacts of this, in the context of this debate, on the people of Hong Kong.

I totally concur with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Carrington, who mentioned specifically—I mentioned it from the Dispatch Box only yesterday—that anyone involved in any shape or form, which means globally, with the challenge we now face, and, more importantly, the lessons being learned, cannot dispute that this is a global challenge requiring global solutions. That means that we share our experiences in this respect. To pick up on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on engagement with authorities and NGOs on this, as he will already be aware, we are engaging directly on an international front—I have been directly involved with such discussions—and, as I mentioned yesterday, we have already allocated a specific package of £241 million aid funding, which we are providing through various UN agencies as well as through the IMF. We have allocated a further £65 million on research, because this is a battle against time: we need to find an early solution to this crisis.

As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, noted, as of 19 March, the number of cases in Hong Kong has been quite limited, thankfully, because of actions taken. The latest statistics I have are that as of that date, there have been 192 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, including a British citizen who had recently visited Japan and London—again, that reinforces Carrie Lam’s point that some cases of coronavirus have occurred due to people arriving in Hong Kong. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, noted, four people have died, sadly, but also importantly, in this global challenge, 95 people have now recovered from that virus in Hong Kong.

I am sure that I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I offer our heartfelt sympathies, and those of the whole UK Government, to all those who have been affected, in Hong Kong and elsewhere. We fully appreciate the challenges facing the Hong Kong Government and others across the world—particularly in Italy, South Korea, Iran and China—who are dealing with significant numbers of cases. We are also facing the task here of containing and delaying the spread of the virus. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned the challenge. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken directly with the Chinese President, again reiterating our support for China and the sharing of best experience as we collectively face the challenge of Covid-19.

All Governments are having to make careful choices, as we are, about how to respond: weighing up the task of containing the spread of the virus against the social and economic disruption resulting from the measures taken to respond. The sustainability of those responses is also critical. If I may personalise some of the challenges, as a father of three, with my wife, only yesterday, after the decision taken by the Government, the prospect of having three children home-schooled for a number of months posed one’s own domestic challenge; the reality is very much at home. I assure all noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government are clear that all the responses being taken are critical—and, yes, they should be well informed by the views of experts and led by the science. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has prioritised this approach in close co-ordination with international partners, including through the World Health Organization.

Specifically on Hong Kong, the number of new cases remains relatively low, as I said, with 25 new cases yesterday—although I add the cautionary note that that was the highest single daily increase so far. As several noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, in his opening remarks, the Hong Kong Government have taken a series of measures to contain the spread of the virus. These have been backed up by a strong societal response conditioned by personal experiences of the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003.

After the first confirmed case in late January, over the course of February and March the Hong Kong Government introduced a number of significant measures, including: the suspension or scaling back of flights, trains, ferries and buses between Hong Kong and mainland China; the closure of most border crossings with mainland China; and from 19 March—as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, specifically mentioned—a compulsory 14-day quarantine for all travellers entering Hong Kong. This includes travellers into Hong Kong from the United Kingdom. For Hong Kong residents, including foreign nationals who live in Hong Kong, this quarantine can take place at home. For non-Hong Kong residents, such as tourists and business visitors, this will be in a Hong Kong government quarantine centre. The measures also include the prevention of entry of all non-Hong Kong residents who had been in Hubei province in mainland China or in South Korea in the previous 14 days. Individuals will also be expected to activate sharing of their real-time location with the Hong Kong Government as part of the requirement to report their location.

The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, mentioned face masks in his opening remarks. The Hong Kong Government have acknowledged public concern over the shortage in the supply of masks. I understand that they are working to increase the supply by sourcing masks globally, increasing local production and liaising with relevant authorities in mainland China to facilitate the swift delivery to Hong Kong of masks manufactured there. I have noticed updates on various news programmes, and the Chinese authorities are now shifting masks to other parts of the world as they look to contain their own outbreak.

The UK’s ability to replenish stocks of personal protective equipment, which includes fluid-repellent surgical masks, is severely constrained due to the significant increase in global demand. However, the UK Government support a collaborative approach to tackling the global challenge presented by Covid-19. The Department of Health and Social Care has strong, established links with key partners and countries to co-ordinate the response to Covid-19 across all public health issues.

The robust measures taken by the Hong Kong Government to respond to Covid-19 have inevitably had an impact on the Hong Kong economy, which was already in recession before the outbreak, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. The tourism and retail sectors have been hit particularly hard. In this regard, the Hong Kong Government have announced an anti-epidemic fund worth 30 billion Hong Kong dollars to support businesses and safeguard jobs. The Hong Kong Government’s response demonstrates just how seriously they have taken the outbreak. It demonstrates that Hong Kong shares one of the key challenges faced by all jurisdictions.

The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Carrington, asked specifically about UK action. The UK is of course closely monitoring the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong. Our consulate-general is in frequent contact with the Government on their response. It is of course vital for the wider management of the outbreak that the UK and Hong Kong share our experiences and, to quote both noble Lords, work together. I assure noble Lords that we stand together with international partners to support Hong Kong as we deal with this global public health emergency. Our consulate-general continues to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Hong Kong who request and require it.

I turn specifically now to BNOs, raised by several noble Lords. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, raised specific issues relating to veterans in this respect as well. Let me say from the outset that the obligations of the UK Government towards Hong Kong residents with British national (overseas) status is something we take very seriously. As noble Lords will recall, British national (overseas) status was created in 1985 for people in Hong Kong who would lose their British dependent territory citizenship in 1997 when sovereignty was handed to China. As of February 2020, there were 349,881 British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, out of an estimated 2.9 million people eligible for such status. Individuals with this status are entitled to British consular assistance in third countries.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked specifically about consular assistance in Hong Kong for people with this status. As he may know—I am sure he is aware of this point, which has been raised before—there is no basis under the joint declaration, including in its memorandums, to provide such consular assistance to BNOs in Hong Kong itself. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, the British national (overseas) status was part of the delicate balance and negotiations conducted and concluded at the time of the joint declaration. Full and continued respect for the provisions in the joint declaration are crucial to the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of its people.

Several noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about Her Majesty’s Government’s position. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in the other place towards the end of last year, we are not at this stage seeking to alter any one part of the package, including the consular status of British nationals (overseas).

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about the 64 members of the Hong Kong police who have the right of abode in the UK. Under the British nationality selection scheme, which was introduced in 1990 and operated until 1 July 1997, a limited number of people were able to register as British citizens. I assure noble Lords that I will follow this up with the Home Office by letter, so that it is a matter of formal record that the issue has been raised again. I am aware that the Home Office is looking at this. I remember from my time there that it was being examined, but I will, as I say, formally write to my noble friend the Minister of State at the Home Office to see how we can progress the matter further and I will then respond accordingly to the noble and gallant Lord.

The noble Lords, Lord Pendry and Lord Alton, rightly talked about recent arrests in Hong Kong. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, also raised this important issue. As noble Lords will know, I am acutely aware of the challenges not only in Hong Kong but in mainland China on human rights issues, whether we are talking about media freedom, freedom of religion or belief, or the general suppression of rights. Several noble Lords asked about raising this issue in international fora. During my last travels prior to the current challenges that we all now face, I specifically mentioned in the UK statement to the Human Rights Council the broader issue relating to the Uighur community. I assure noble Lords that this remains a personal priority, which I continue to take forward.

On the arrests of Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, we are following their cases closely. We are asking that due process be followed and that justice be applied fairly and transparently. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner and Lady Kennedy, rightly spoke about the priority of media freedom. That is a priority campaign for Her Majesty’s Government, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, in particular, for her work on the legal panel. I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we have consistently raised our concern about media freedoms in China. I agree with him that the Chinese Government’s announcement that they will prevent certain American journalists from working in China further restricts transparency at a particularly important time. The suggestion by the Chinese MFA that the measure may apply in Hong Kong is deeply concerning. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said, the Sino-British joint declaration is clear. It sets out that immigration decisions are the sole responsibility of the Hong Kong special administrative region. She is right that freedom of the press is guaranteed. It is imperative that these rights and freedoms are fully respected. We take any allegations of the arrest and intimidation of journalists in Hong Kong extremely seriously, and we expect the Hong Kong authorities to abide by international human rights laws and practices.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned the importance of what we saw in Hong Kong prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. We continue to condemn any violence and make it clear that all protests should be policed and conducted within the law and that authorities should avoid actions that could inflame tensions. As the noble Baroness acknowledged, we have called specifically for a robust independent investigation into these events and will continue to do so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, asked about raising these issues with the Chinese authorities. I assure her that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and others in the Government regularly raise our concerns about rights and freedoms with the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Hong Kong Chief Executive and the ambassador to the Court of St James. I assure noble Lords that the leadership in China and Hong Kong are in no doubt about the strength of UK concern over the current situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked a specific question about Home Office collaboration with Chinese authorities on facial recognition technology. I can inform him that the funding of this project was allocated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a publicly funded arm’s-length body that has formed part of UK Research and Innovation since April 2018. We ourselves as the Government are not involved in the actual funding decisions that this body makes, but I note the points that the noble Lord has raised on this issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, raised the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are indeed foundations on which Hong Kong’s success and prosperity have been built. Indeed, up until recent events prior to Covid-19, “one country, two systems” had worked quite robustly and well. It is our view that it should be continue to be the basis of how Hong Kong can truly prosper and continue to progress and move forward.

I would like to conclude on the specific issue of Covid-19. The Hong Kong Government have taken what we believe are a number of robust measures—indeed, a number of noble Lords acknowledged that in their contributions—and that has resulted in proactive action. I think there is a lesson to be learned there. We have had other discussions in your Lordships’ House about lessons being learned, whether from the challenges that AIDS posed or indeed any crisis. The SARS crisis in that part of the world has resulted in people really acting and checking their own behaviour, and I think there are lessons to be learned there for all of us.

I assure noble Lords that we are in close and frequent contact with the Hong Kong Government. I give reassurance, again, that we stand ready to support them and share expertise to address the complex and global threat of Covid-19. On the wider issues that noble Lords have mentioned, such as media freedom, human rights and indeed the challenges that we have seen over the last 12 months or so in Hong Kong prior to Covid-19, I assure them that those things will remain very much a priority for Her Majesty’s Government.