How a birthday party exposed Hong Kong officials to the harsh reality of zero-Covid

A worker in a protective suit helps bring residents to quarantine after new cases were reported on January 9 in Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong (CNN)He's an unlikely critic of the Hong Kong government -- but after being hauled off to mandatory quarantine over the weekend, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho did not hold back.

Broadcasting live on Facebook on Saturday, Ho, who is known for his staunchly pro-establishment views, slammed his hand on the table and shook his finger angrily. The city's uncompromising Covid-19 strategy was as unsound as "sandcastles on the beach," he said.
"The government's handling of matters is completely outrageous, completely disordered!" he said in another post that night.
    Ho was among dozens of Hong Kong bureaucrats and lawmakers ordered into quarantine last week after they were potentially exposed to Covid-19 at an official's birthday party on January 3.
      More than 200 people attended the event at a Spanish restaurant, of which at least one has been confirmed positive with Covid-19. An investigation is underway to determine whether the restaurant or any of the officials present broke any rules.
        Hong Kong, along with mainland China, is one of the few places still following a strict zero-Covid model. The city is largely closed off to the outside world, with the government doubling down on its aim of eliminating all local cases of the virus in the hope of reopening its border with mainland China.
        Stringent restrictions, a sweeping track, trace and test regime, and harsh border measures, including 21 days of quarantine for almost all arrivals, have kept the infection rate and death toll remarkably low for a city of 7.5 million. But the controversial and divisive measures have also served to isolate Hong Kong, taking a toll on international businesses and any resident who wishes to travel.
          In Hong Kong, anyone who tests positive for the virus or is deemed a close contact of a confirmed case faces serious consequences.
          Positive cases are sent to hospital, regardless of whether they have symptoms. They can only leave after testing negative for the virus twice in succession, upon which they must complete another 14 days of isolation in a government camp.
          Close contacts -- like Ho and the partygoing officials -- also face weeks of isolation and multiple tests at a government facility.
          In his video, Ho made no apology for going to the party, which ignored government guidance to avoid large gatherings amid Hong Kong's first local outbreak of coronavirus cases in nearly three months.
          Residents line up to get tested for Covid-19 in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, on January 9.
          Instead, the 59-year-old lawmaker had a long list of complaints about his experience at the Penny's Bay government quarantine center.
          It was late at night, but he hadn't eaten dinner. He said he was not allowed to drive to the facility, authorities had taken too long to arrange transportation, and the rules were altogether too rigid.
          The city's leader, Carrie Lam, should resign over the party scandal, he said.
          The current Covid outbreak in Hong Kong, driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant, has been traced to infected aircrew members from Hong Kong's flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, who violated isolation rules by going to restaurants and bars.
          In response, the government last week imposed new restrictions, including closing bars and suspending dine-in at restaurants after 6 p.m.
          Lam criticized Cathay's senior management for the actions of its staff and said the government would take legal action against the airline if necessary. "Although the management may not be aware of all the actions that each employee takes, it's not an excuse to not to be blamed," she said.
          The new restrictions have deepened public frustration with the pro-Beijing government, who many view as being out-of-touch with local needs.
          Following last year's "China patriots only" election, the city's legislative body is made up exclusively of pro-Beijing or pro-establishment members.
          And as details of the birthday party emerged, the public outcry grew louder, with many calling out the alleged hypocrisy.
          "At the height of the fire, you still attended such a large gathering? Are you encouraging the public to do the same as you?" one top comment read below Ho's Facebook video.
          Many of the officials who attended the party have publicly apologized and vowed to be more careful in future. They include Hong Kong's police commissioner, treasury secretary, anti-corruption commissioner and home affairs secretary.
          But almost as quickly as they'd been whisked away to quarantine, Ho and several other officials were released after one of the cases linked to the party was deemed a false positive.
          Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam at a news conference on January 11.
          "They had me waiting around all day, and only told me now I can go!" Ho said on Facebook. "And they can only send me to the Tsing Yi MTR station -- If that was the case, they should have told me earlier so I could get a driver to come pick me up!"
          On Monday, the government shortened its policy of 21 days quarantine for close contacts to 14 days, citing a lack of capacity and the shorter incubation time for the Omicron variant.
          Lam said the party scandal was a "deep disappointment." Pending the investigation, she would take action if officials were determined to have broken the rules, she added.
          But apparently contradicting her earlier comments about Cathay Pacific, she stopped short of taking personal responsibility.
          Accountability "does not mean that I'm responsible of the decisions and actions of my colleagues," she said January 6, adding the party was "a private event."
          At a news conference Tuesday, Lam admitted she had attended a wedding banquet in late November or early December, but urged the public to avoid "fault-finding."
          There had been "criticisms about the way that we handle this epidemic," Lam said, but she defended the government's tough anti-Covid stance.
            "There is no point to say who is at fault and who is the source of all these problems because the problems will occur as we continue to fight the epidemic," she said.
            "The importance is we maintain the vigilance to enforce, and we punish people who fail to comply by issuing penalties and also taking them to court."