Since Covid-19 quarantine measures came into place, the number of people travelling in and out of Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) has plunged. Usually, the airport handles almost 72 million passengers a year, yet only 32,000 passengers arrived or departed in April – a drop of 99.5 per cent from last year.

On June 1, HKIA reopened to international transit passengers. With the arrival of more flights, many from high-risk destinations, there will be an increased chance of staff at the airport being exposed to Covid-19 – potentially opening a corridor for the coronavirus to spread in Hong Kong.

It is critical that appropriate measures are put in place to protect staff and passengers, and reduce the likelihood of airport and community spread.

Masked travellers at the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: GovHK.

Although we may believe that “landside” is largely demarcated from “airside”, passengers and airport workers of all types – ground staff, check-in staff, cleaners, security guards, luggage porters, aircrew and flight attendants – revolve through portals that connect the two sides.

HKIA workers may unwittingly transport the virus back into the community if they are not diligent about hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE), nor trained in the processes required to eliminate self- or cross-contamination.

Currently, all passengers are subjected to temperature testing both on arrival, and again before the departure of their flight. From June 1, mask-wearing in HKIA restricted zones became compulsory. Hand sanitiser appears to be widely available.

But these measures are not foolproof. One alarming example of a passenger slipping through a loophole is that of the 70-year-old woman who travelled to Hong Kong from the UK in May while knowingly infected with Covid-19. Cases like this support the introduction of rapid testing of passengers for the virus prior to any flight.

The websites of HKIA and individual airlines outline new procedures for transit passengers aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, including mandatory mask-wearing, use of hand sanitiser, and swift arrival of passengers at their departure gates.

Photo: GovHK.

However, while some airport lounges are closed until further notice, others – such as Cathay Pacific’s The Wing – are still open for business; serving food and drinks to passengers hailing from all destinations. The handling of serving utensils, plates and cups all represent opportunities for cross-contamination, and could potentially expose staff to the virus as they clear tables.

Ideally, recyclable single-use utensils should be offered for dining and disposed of by the consumer. Where possible, the “cashless” or “tap-and-pay” concept now embraced by many countries should be used to reduce the handling of coins and cash. Covid-19 can remain active for hours on surfaces such as coins and notes, plastic, copper and stainless steel.

It is encouraging to see that, in the wake of the pandemic, HKIA has implemented new deep-cleaning strategies. The airport has deployed autonomous cleaning robots in bathrooms, which aerosolise disinfectants and use UV light to disinfect all surfaces thoroughly. HKIA is also the first airport in the world to trial “CleanTech” full-body disinfecting booths.

As travel restrictions around the world continue to lift, the vigilance at HKIA needs to be meticulous. Upon leaving the airport after a shift, workers should remove all PPE carefully and dispose of it as biohazard waste. Soles of shoes must be disinfected, while gloves need to be removed with as much care as facemasks. Hands and hair should also be washed as soon as possible after a shift.

Hopefully, the advanced full-body disinfecting booths will be rolled out soon for all staff, making these steps more straightforward. It would also be ideal if all airport workers and Hong Kong-based aircrew would routinely submit for Covid-19 testing, both for peace of mind and to reduce the incidence of community transmission.

The future of travel will be different for the foreseeable future. And, until an effective medication or vaccine is developed for Covid-19, it seems this is a taste of “the new normal.” Although the virus should not be anthropomorphised, the fact remains that viruses cannot survive without a human host – and they will hitch a ride in any way possible.

For the benefit of Hong Kong, there must be strict operating processes in place that keep airport staff, crew and passengers alike protected from virus exposure and spread.

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Dr Ariane M. Davison

Dr Ariane M. Davison is a virologist and immunologist with experience in the global healthcare and biotechnology industries. She earned her doctorate from The University of Sydney Medical School, has presented by invitation at international conferences, and her original work has been published in international scientific journals.