Hong Kong health authorities have identified the source of infection of a previously untraceable local Covid-19 case, after it prompted the government to roll out “the most stringent” social distancing measures yet amid fears of a community outbreak.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said on Wednesday that it traced the Octopus card transaction history of the 42-year-old patient – a surveyor who was unvaccinated – and found he had breakfast at Six Garden Restaurant in Tin Hau last Friday, next to three other infected persons.

Government enforces lockdown and compulsory testing at Causeway Bay on January 5, 2022. File Photo: GovHK.

The three included a 62-year-old mother who came down with Covid-19 after being infected by her daughter, who is a flight attendant. The Cathay Pacific employee was confirmed to be carrying the highly mutated Omicron variant.

The other two patients who visited the Tin Hau eatery were friends of the mother.

Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch at CHP, and leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) inspected the restaurant concerned on Wednesday night.

The HKU scholar, who advises the government on the pandemic, said he believed the transmission occurred owing to a lack of ventilation in the Tin Hau restaurant during morning hours.

Yuen Kwok-yung. File photo: GovHK.

“When [the chefs] were cooking simple breakfast items, they did not turn on the fresh air intake system,” Yuen told the press after examining the eatery. “They only switched on a small air extraction system for making things like sandwiches and scrambled eggs, therefore there was insufficient circulation of fresh air.”

The CHP said around 10 other customers had dined in during the same time period as the four new Covid-19 patients. The centre is currently tracing the Octopus card records of the restaurant and urged such customers to proactively report to the authorities.

Lockdowns found no new cases

Overnight lockdown orders were issued for three buildings on Wednesday night, where the three infected diners who sat at the same table live. They included Serene Court on Tin Hau Temple Road, Rock View Gardens on Tat Chee Avenue in Kowloon Tong and Block 15 of the Provident Centre on Wharf Road in North Point.

Government enforces lockdown and compulsory testing at Kowloon Tong on January 5, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Around 515 residents were tested and no one tested positive for the virus.

As of Wednesday, there were 12,708 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong, while the number of deaths stood at 213. The city has registered 114 infections involving Omicron so far.

‘Cut losses’

On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam described Hong Kong as being “on the verge” of a fifth wave of infections when she announced a tightening of social distancing rules.

Dine-in services at all restaurants will be suspended after 6 p.m. starting from Friday, while bars, gyms, beauty salons, cinemas and theme parks are among a list of premises that will be shut down completely for at least two weeks. The restrictions will be reviewed after one week.

“The government will tighten social distancing measures to the most stringent level as seen during the third and fourth waves of the epidemic, with a view to reducing public traffic, social functions and crowd gatherings to the greatest extent,” a government statement issued on Wednesday read.

Social distancing measures in restaurants. File photo: GovHK.

While local health authorities were able to track down the sources of infection for the newly-discovered cases, Yuen of HKU said that stepping up social distancing measures remained necessary: “If we implement the measures earlier, [so that] the pandemic can be controlled, there will be a greater chance for reopening before Lunar New Year,” he said.

Speaking on RTHK on Thursday morning, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan warned that the city may still have invisible transmission chains. She said while people may not welcome the incoming social distancing rules, it was better for the city to endure “short-term pain” than suffering from a potential outbreak.

“Of course no one wants [the tightening of social distancing measures], but we want to cut our losses and hope this time [the measures] are quick, ruthless and precise…to control the pandemic within 14 days.”

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Peter Lee

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.