Airline Cathay Pacific announced the immediate suspension of all long-haul cargo flights and cargo-only passenger flights on Thursday as the authorities ramped up Covid-19 quarantine measures for aircrew. The move comes after local Omicron cases were found in the community, with a possible connection to a crew member accused of flouting quarantine restrictions.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam summoned the chairperson and the CEO of Cathay on Friday morning to “express strong discontent” over quarantine rules being broken, Secretary of Food and Health Sophia Chan said at a press conference in the afternoon. Lam ordered the chairperson to personally review the matter and explain to the public.

Cathay Pacific plane grounded travel airplane
Cathay Pacific. Photo: GovHK.

Cathay’s suspension lasts for seven days, until January 6, and affects trans-Pacific, European, Southwest Pacific, Riyadh and Dubai cargo flights.

On Tuesday, the Centre for Health Protection announced that cargo aircrew will be required to undergo three days of quarantine at designated hotels instead of their own residences, after three Cathay cargo aircrew members back from US were found to carry Covid-19.

Separately, the Transport and Housing Bureau said quarantine for cargo aircrew will be further tightened to include a 7-day hotel confinement.

The flagship carrier reportedly told its staff about the new quarantine requirements on Thursday and said it will need to activate “closed-loop operations” for cargo crew. According to SCMP, the airline’s director of flight operations Chris Kempis said the transition to new operations cannot be completed overnight and they need to “take a breather” to consider dependencies such as hotel room availability.

Hong Kong international airport
Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

In a separate announcement earlier, the firm said they were making “further significant changes” to its flight schedules, which include the cancellations of passenger flights until “tentatively the first quarter of 2022.”

The airline said they intend to run a “skeleton passenger flight schedule” in the coming month, but it did not specify how many flights would be affected.

Cathay Pacific cancelled 17 departing and 5 arriving passenger flights on Friday, according to Hong Kong International Airport’s official website.

Possible local Omicron transmission

The Department of Health said two local positive cases are possibly connected to a Cathay crew member, who was confirmed to be carrying the highly transmissible Omicron variant. It marks the first time the variant – which is sweeping the globe – has been detected within the community.

Festival Walk
Festival Walk shopping centre. File Photo: GovHK.

The two cases, and the 44-year-old crew member, all had lunch at the Moon Palace restaurant at Kowloon Tong’s Festival Walk shopping centre on Monday. The 76-year-old father of the Cathay employee, who dined with him, as well as a 34-year-old construction worker sat at a separate table both tested preliminarily positive.

The Centre for Health Protection said that, according to its investigation, it “could not be ruled out” that the two patients were infected by the crew member.

Dr. David Hui, Chinese University infectious disease expert and government expert adviser on the pandemic, said on Commercial Radio on Friday that it “can’t be sure that local transmission occurred in Moon Palace restaurant” and the zero local cases streak in Hong Kong “could be broken.”

Hui said the construction worker was a “few tables away” from the Cathay crew member, therefore they need to be wary as to whether other customers were infected.

David Hui Shu Cheong government advisor covid expert infectious disease at CUHK
David Hui. File Photo: GovHK.

Ming Pao reported that other two Cathay cabin crew members may have broken quarantine restrictions and visited a bar named Iron Fairies & Co in Central on Monday.

One tested positive for Covid-19, while the other was confirmed to be infected with the more-contagious Omicron variant earlier. They both returned from the US and arrived in Hong Kong around Christmas.

The 47-year-old, who tested positive, went to Pici restaurant in Central before heading to the bar, the newspaper added.

Hui said the case raises concerns that there maybe outbreak in groups related to the bar.

Compulsory testing at 60 venues

The Food and Health Bureau put 60 premises under its compulsory testing list published on Friday, following the detection of new imported and local cases.

The list includes the Festival Walk mall, bar and restaurants, as well as the Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo and multiple bus routes among other places.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself had attended the expo.

shek kip mei lockdown
People lined up for testing in Shek Kip Mei. Photo: GovHK.

People who have frequented the listed premises during the specified period are required to undergo Covid-19 testing on, or before, Saturday.

In response to the new cases, the city’s health authorities had also imposed overnight neighbourhood lockdowns on Thursday at a residential block in Shek Kip Mei where the 44-year-old crew member lived and another in Kennedy Town – home to the 47-year-old.

1,111 residents were tested during the two lockdowns and no positive cases were found.

As of Thursday, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong is 12,649, while the death toll stands at 213.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.