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Hong Kong shocked by Swiss virus ban

Hong Kong is one of the areas affected by the ban

(Keystone)

Hong Kong officials have challenged a Swiss decision barring certain Asian countries from doing business at a major watch fair over fears of a deadly virus.

They complained of a lack of consultation and threatened to pull out of the fair due to open in Basel and Zurich on Thursday.

The government on Tuesday banned people from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore from working at the fair amid fears over the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

Fred Lam, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC), told swissinfo that exhibitors from the territory had spent around HK$50 million (SFr8.8 million) on the fair so far.

"This fair is very important for Hong Kong's watch and jewellery industry," Lam said. "If we cannot participate in the Zurich fair, it means we are going to lose probably 20 to 30 per cent of our business for this year."

He said the Hong Kong government would make representations to Bern following the decree, which affects up to 3,000 exhibitors and their employees.

The BASELWORLD fair organisers say they expect that 383 of the 786 stands in Zurich will now not open.

Government speaks

However, the Swiss government defended its eleventh-hour decision, saying it had acted after being approached by the cantons of Basel and Zurich with their concerns.

The deputy head of infectious diseases at the Federal Health Office, Hans Matter, told swissinfo that he agreed the decision had been taken at the very last minute but that it was necessary.

"We have to understand that the situation evolved during the last days," Matter said, referring to a recent increase in suspected Sars cases in Switzerland.

The latest suspected case, announced on Wednesday, is a pilot with Singapore Airlines, who is under observation in a Zurich hospital with flu-like symptoms.

The Office's director, Thomas Zeltner, stressed that the ban was not discriminatory against nationals from the affected regions in Southeast Asia. The prohibition would also apply to Swiss working in these countries, hoping to re-enter Switzerland to participate in the fairs.

Legal advice

The Hong Kong TDC is now seeking more information and legal advice on the full effect of the decree and how best to represent the interests of 317 exhibitors in the Hong Kong Pavilion, which is second only to the Swiss pavilion in size.

"We need to consider what we are going to do," Lam added. "I think that if we do not receive a positive response from the Swiss government by noon tomorrow [Thursday], we would probably have no alternative than to withdraw from the fair altogether," Lam said.

"We have asked our legal representative to appeal to the Swiss authorities on this. We have also offered to ask all our exhibitors to undergo a medical check by the Swiss medical authority. We feel that if the health check indicates that none of us is affected by the virus, there is no reason why we should not be allowed to participate in the fair."

The decree stipulates that the fair organisers must ensure that exhibitors neither "employ nor engage" people who have been in the affected areas since March 1, and applies to all exhibitors. Penalties for infringement include imprisonment.

Lam told a news conference in Basel on Wednesday that he was "most disappointed and surprised" that the Swiss government had issued the decree without prior consultation and after the vast majority of Hong Kong exhibitors had already arrived in Switzerland or were on their way.

Strange Swiss welcome

"It's a very strange Swiss way of saying welcome. At this eleventh hour it makes Hong Kong's participation at this fair almost impossible," he said.

"It also gives our exhibitors no scope to make alternative arrangements to staff their booths. I personally spoke to the Swiss consul general in Hong Kong before I boarded the plane and he told me nothing of this," Lam added.

The TDC said it had all along taken the initiative to cooperate fully with the fair organisers and the Swiss government in recognition of their concerns about Sars and the need for all parties to minimise risk.

"Our exhibitors have taken all reasonable precautions recommended by our own government and the World Health Organisation. They have fully submitted to measures imposed on travellers by health authorities and airlines," Lam said.

"We are here... They [the authorities] allow us to walk freely in the fair grounds and the exhibition. The only thing we are not allowed to do, it seems, is business at the fair," Lam told swissinfo.

"I find this decision difficult to comprehend."

Logistics problems

Commenting on the government decision, the Swiss Exhibition chief executive officer, René Kamm, said a number of task forces had been set up to deal with logistical problems that had arisen.

"I have to make it clear that we as the Swiss organisers have to comply fully with this directive from the highest authority of this country," he said.

"I personally feel very sorry about the implications of this directive for everybody concerned," he added.

One of the long-standing exhibitors at the fair, Ronnie Bernheim from the Mondaine Watch Company of Zurich - makers of the Swiss Railway Watch - told swissinfo that he disagreed with the government decision.

"I understand the government's duty to protect the population and take measures when needed," he commented.

"But when measures are taken, they must be appropriate and reasonable. It shouldn't be segregation."

"What it has done is perceived segregation," he said, adding that the unintentional effect was that Asian competitors were being locked out of doing business at the fair.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Basel

Sars summary

At least 75 people worldwide have died from Sars, most of them in China.
The Federal Health Office has advised Swiss nationals against travelling to Hong Kong and Guandong province in China.
The decision is in line with World Health Organization recommendations.
Meanwhile, the number of suspected Sars cases in Switzerland has risen to nine.
The latest case, a Singapore Airlines pilot, was admitted to hospital in Zurich on Tuesday, showing symptoms of the illness.

end of infobox

Watch fair summary

The Swiss government has banned people from some Asian countries from working at the annual watch and jewellery fair amid fears over the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

Hong Kong's Trade Development Council (TDC) says the ruling will effectively exclude its exhibitors from the watch fair.

It has threatened that Hong Kong exhibitors may pull out altogether, if the Swiss government does not reconsider its decision.

Fred Lam, TDC deputy executive director, said Hong Kong would make representations to Bern following the decree, which affects up to 3,000 exhibitors and their employees.

end of infobox

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