All Hong Kong playgroups, kindergartens and primary schools are to halt in-person classes by Friday at the latest, as Omicron spreads in the community, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said. Classes are set to resume after the Lunar New Year break.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on January 11, 2022 ahead of the Executive Council meeting. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Schools may decide to close earlier, she said during her routine press briefing, but the government is providing a buffer period for them to make necessary arrangements.

Last week, Lam resisted calls to close schools, citing the psychological effect on youngsters: “Stopping in-person classes is the hardest decision for me to make,” she said on Tuesday. “On one hand, stopping classes will protect them from infections, but on the other hand it will be to the detriment of their physical and psychological wellbeing.”

The decision was made after three Covid-19 cases were found in young children between 3 to 4 years old who attended playgroups or kindergartens. The schools they attended had to be shut down, while all their teachers and children who were close contacts had to be put in mandatory quarantine – a situation Lam described as “very dissatisfactory.”

Many schools also saw recent outbreaks of respiratory diseases, with symptoms similar to Omicron infections, making it more challenging to differentiate whether students were infected with a common illness or the coronavirus.

Children will receive vaccinations at school once in-person classes resume after the break, if the epidemic is under control, Lam said, without specifying whether it would be made mandatory.

Photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile, secondary schools will continue with in-person teaching, with current anti-epidemic measures already in place.

New relief funds

Acknowledging the hardship that businesses are facing under the government’s “stringent” anti-epidemic measures, Lam said the government will launch a fifth round of relief funds for premises affected by closures. Details and the amounts concerned will be released on Friday.

Subsidies were handed out to all businesses in Hong Kong to discourage layoffs during the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic last year, including restaurants, beauty parlours, or tourism agencies.

A LeaveHomeSafe QR code outside a restaurant. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Some businesses have never been able to recover from the economic impact of the epidemic such as those in the tourism industry, Lam said. These businesses remained in “a frozen state”, she added.

The government’s anti-epidemic fund has about HK$4 billion remaining. It will seek additional funds from the legislature, Lam said. How the latest round of subsidies is to be handed out will be based on the arrangements in the previous rounds.

More vaccine centres

Noting that there had been an “obvious increase” in people getting vaccinated since announcement of a domestic “vaccine bubble” which would bar unvaccinated residents from certain premises like restaurants, four community vaccination centres will be brought back online. The EDB Kowloon Tong Education Services Centre and the Kowloon Bay Sports Ground centres will reopen next Monday.

A student receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile, the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre in Western District and the Boundary Street Sports Centre in Prince Edward will reopen by the end of the month for vaccinations.

The government aims to be able to administer over 1.3 million doses per month.

Over 900,000 people eligible for the jab who are over 60-years-old remain unvaccinated. To boost elderly vaccinations, the government will reserve same-day tickets at community vaccination centres for those over 60.

The number of Elderly Health Centres offering jabs will also expand from three to 15, Lam announced. The government will also boost the number of visits by doctors to elderly care homes and provide subsidies where necessary.

‘Most severe measures’

Hong Kong reported 24 Covid-19 infections on Monday, totalling 12,959 infections and 213 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic around two years ago.

Meanwhile, the city has seen a total of 42 local Omicron cases since the end of December, Lam said, with all but one found to be epidemiologically linked to imported cases. She said she felt “optimistic and confident” about Hong Kong’s control over the epidemic, while other countries saw an “exponential surge” in Omicron infections.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (red) infected with Covid-19. File photo: NIAID-RML.

The government will keep up with its present three-pronged measures to tackle the outbreak: minimising imported cases, contact-tracing and boosting vaccination. Lam said the authorities will take “the most severe measures to suppress” the epidemic.

Since the onset of the fifth wave, 4,000 people identified as close contacts of patients have been sent to mandatory quarantine, where 26 of the 42 local cases have been identified. “You can imagine if these 26 cases did not have to undergo quarantine… the consequences would be unimaginable,” she said.

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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.