Hong Kong has suspended Philippine Airlines flights from Manila for two weeks, just as authorities began allowing Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers back into the city on Monday.

The circuit-breaker mechanism triggered on Sunday also suspends Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul, after three passengers tested positive for Covid-19 on flights by each airline last Friday.

Labour Department staffers hold a signage remind domestic workers that it is compulsory to wear a face mask in public areas. File photo: GovHK.

While two other airlines fly from Manila to Hong Kong, the Philippine Airlines flight suspension ending on September 11 was the latest hiccup to the return of foreign domestic workers to Hong Kong. Thousands were stuck in their home countries for months after the Philippines and Indonesia were designated as high-risk countries, meaning only permanent residents of Hong Kong were allowed to travel from those countries.

Following a change in policy, fully vaccinated foreign domestic workers from the two countries may now work in the city after undergoing 21 days of quarantine at the designated Silka Tsuen Wan Hotel starting Monday. However NowTV reported that the hotel’s 409 rooms were fully booked until early November, after bookings opened last Friday.

The government has designated only one hotel for the quarantine of domestic workers to try to control the influx.

Silka Tsuen Wan Hotel. Photo: Silka Tsuen Wan Hotel.

Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies chair Chan Tung-fung said securing a booking was akin to winning a “lucky draw.” He also said the HK$800 a night rate seemed overpriced, as the same hotel had previously charged between HK$400-$500.

An infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, Ho Pak-leung, said during a radio interview on Monday that the city must “take it slowly” as it welcomes back its foreign domestic workers. “If we allow many Filipino or Indonesian workers to enter too quickly, it may trigger the circuit breaker mechanism” and lead to a complete halt in air traffic from these countries, he said.

50% vaccinated

Hong Kong’s civil service chief has said the government may consider requiring workers at environments with a higher risk of Covid-19 infection to receive mandatory jabs. Half of the city’s population eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations — or 3.4 million people — had been fully vaccinated as of Sunday evening.

Speaking on TVB’s On The Record programme on Sunday, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip said the government is pushing for an overall 70 per cent vaccination rate by the end of September, with the ultimate goal of covering the entire population.

The city has seen a marked slowdown, from over 50,000 jabs a day in early August to less than 10,000 per day in the past week as it continues a two-month streak without local cases of an unidentified source.

Patrick Nip. Photo: Patrick Nip, via Facebook.

The government “won’t rule out” requiring Hongkongers to use a “health pass” showing their vaccination record or negative test results before they can access certain premises, Nip said in response to a question on whether jabs would be made mandatory.

“You can see that some designated premises would be required by law to shut down in a wave of Covid-19 cases. These premises could be restricted from access except to those who are vaccinated — I won’t rule out this possibility, these are areas we would consider,” he said.

While the vaccination rate for 20 to 59 year-olds is about 70 per cent, only 30 per cent of the elderly are vaccinated, and only 56 per cent of students between 12 to 19.

Nip said the government has extended until end-September its policy of allowing civil servants days off work following their vaccination appointments. About 91 per cent of the government’s workforce, over 93 per cent of the Hospital Authority’s staff and about 80 per cent of retirement home workers were vaccinated.

He also urged employers to require employees to get vaccinated or to undergo regular Covid-19 tests.

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.