Local heath experts have warned Hongkongers of a potential Covid-19 community outbreak as a restaurant cluster of Omicron infections grew to five people. The authorities are still tracking down around 30 of some 200 diners who visited the eatery at the same time as the patients.

Ma On Shan Covid-19 Lockdown
Residents in Ma On Shan undergo compulsory testing on January 2, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

The initial transmission occurred at the Moon Palace restaurant in Kowloon Tong’s Festival Walk shopping mall last Monday. The city’s health authorities said they suspect that a Cathay Pacific crew member who allegedly breached quarantine rules was the source of outbreak after he had lunch there.

The 44-year-old Cathay employee was confirmed as carrying the highly-mutated Omicron variant last Wednesday. His 76-year-old father, a 34-year-old construction worker, and a 50-year-old housewife who dined in the restaurant for the time period were also confirmed to be infected by Omicron. The airline fired him over the weekend.

The wife of the construction worker, 38, tested preliminary-positive for Omicron on Sunday. She had dinner with her husband at the restaurant last Monday, and became the fifth patient in the infection cluster.

Festival Walk restaurant
A restaurant in Festival Walk shopping centre. File Photo: GovHK.

On Sunday, the Centre for Health Protection said it had arranged around 340 close contacts of the patients and their household members to undergo quarantine at government facilities. They included 22 Moon Palace staff members and around 170 customers who visited the eatery at the same time as the infected people.

The Department of Health estimated last Friday that around 200 patrons dined at the restaurant during the time period concerned. It said around 30 people have yet to be tracked down.

Hong Kong registered 26 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, a record high in eight and a half months.

‘Exhaust all means’

Local health experts expressed concern that the virus may spread in the community and have urged the government to step up contact-tracing efforts.

On Monday, Chinese University infectious disease expert Dr. David Hui said on RTHK that because some diners concerned have not been tested, the authorities were unable to look into how the virus was transmitted.

The government adviser on the Covid-19 pandemic said Hong Kong’s official contact-tracing app “LeaveHomeSafe” has no tracing function, and an upgrade cannot be tackled in a short period of time. The government was relying on credit card details to trace the diners, he said.

Coronavirus covid-19 virus leave home safe
Hong Kong people scan the government-developed contact-tracing Leave Home Safe app. Photo: GovHK.

Respiratory infectious disease expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu told Ming Pao on Sunday that if the unidentified diners were infected but asymptomatic, and have been to crowded venues, it could lead to a community outbreak.

Leung said the authorities should “exhaust all means” to track them down, such as by working with mobile service providers to look into tracing methods via GPS location and mobile phone signals.

Leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung of the University of Hong Kong said on TVB on Sunday that Hong Kong’s contact-tracing capabilities have been lacking. The government could consider applying Bluetooth or other technologies to trace patients, even if it may spark privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, Executive Council member and lawyer Ronny Tong said citizens may break the law if they ignore the requirement for them to test or quarantine sent through the “LeaveHomeSafe” app, according to Headline Daily.

Holding off on tightening measures

Hong Kong’s health authorities have yet to tighten social distancing measures in light of the potential Omicron outbreak.

“The government, in the past few days, has been [using] its full strength to control [transmission], including compulsory testing and lockdowns, in the hope of blocking the chain of transmission,” Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said on RTHK on Monday.

She said a total of nine lockdowns were completed over the past week and around 4,800 residents were tested – all were negative.

Sophia Chan
Sophia Chan. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chan said the authorities will monitor the development of the pandemic and adjust social distancing measures accordingly.

During the same radio programme, Hui said the measures should be tightened if there are different points of outbreak or cases with unknown sources: “If [the authorities] ramp up the measures too early, many business will struggle to operate.”

Last Friday, Chan announced that people who are unvaccinated are set to be barred from entering restaurants, gyms, cinemas, beauty salons and public recreational venues as the government seeks to expand the “vaccine bubble” scheme. The new rules will be implemented before the Lunar New Year, she said.

On Monday, the government issued a statement saying it had no plans to close the city’s borders, after some people shared news on WhatsApp that a full border lockdown and other stringent social distancing measures were to be rolled out.

As of Sunday, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong is 12,664, 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.