By Hillary Leung and Peter Lee
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced that current social distancing rules will be extended to cover Lunar New Year as the city continues to see a number of Covid-19 infections linked to imported cases.
“I am aware that this will let a lot of people down because this is spanning over the Lunar New Year holiday. If people are wishing to have warm and happy gatherings, I am afraid they will not be able to do so,” Lam said during a press conference on Friday.
The evening dine-in ban at restaurants and the closure of venues, including gyms, party rooms and beauty parlours, will remain in place until February 3. The existing measures, which were set to expire on January 20, came into force last week.
Hong Kong’s annual Lunar New Year fairs have also been cancelled, Lam said. Speaking at the same press briefing, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said the cancellation of 15 such events across the city had been a “difficult decision.”
Chan said the authorities understood that visiting Lunar New Year fairs was a tradition for citizens and that flower growers wanted to benefit from their past year of labour. However, she said the Covid-19 situation remained in the “dangerous period” and there were multiple transmission chains in the community, and the safety, life and health of citizens is more important.
The existing ban on passenger flights from eight countries – Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United States – will also be extended until February 4.
The extension of the restrictions means that the city will not be able to dine out at dinner to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which begins on February 1. The measures will tentatively expire on February 4, and the government will consider lifting restrictions then if community transmission of the coronavirus has been stemmed.
However, the reopening of venues will be contingent on the introduction of a “vaccine bubble,” whereby only those who have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine will be allowed to enter.
Lam also announced a fifth round funding, totalling HK$3.57 billion, for industries and individuals affected by the tightening of social distancing measures. She said as the span of this round of measures is expected to be shorter than the fourth round, the subsidy amount will be half of what was received last time.
The relief fund will be open for applications next week and the government is striving to release the subsidies on or before Lunar New Year’s Day.
One third of the fund go to affected businesses, while the rest is earmarked for individuals working in affected industries.
The government will also provide subsidies for individual tutors affected by the suspension of in-person classes in primary schools and kindergartens.
The food and health secretary said the government will refund all fares paid by those who rented stalls at Lunar New Year fairs. On top of that, the anti-epidemic fund will subsidise 50 per cent of their expenses.
Not yet ‘under control’
Lam said that the city had conducted 1.1 million nucleic acid tests and that more than 90,000 members of the public had received notifications from the LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app in the past week. She also acknowledged that some residents had been made to wait too long for testing. “On behalf of the SAR government, I apologise to them,” she said.
However, the city remained at risk from an outbreak and the Covid-19 situation in the city was still not “under control,” Lam said, noting that the proportion of asymptomatic cases in Hong Kong was far below the global average, suggesting that there could be silent transmission in the community.
So far, all but one of the local Covid-19 cases – a 58-year-old supermarket worker – have been traced back to imported infections. The worker was among the confirmed cases announced last Sunday. She had symptoms including a fever and a headache, and was found to have a high viral load.
“The case numbers have not risen exponentially. Pretty much all the infection chains have been traced, except for the [supermarket worker],” leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, who advises the government on its pandemic response, told Commercial Radio .
He added: “If we can find all the transmission chains, and if the cases are only close contacts and family members, then there is hope that Hong Kong’s outbreak will end before Lunar New Year.”
According to government data, a total of 42 Covid-19 cases were recorded locally from last Thursday to this Thursday, compared with 17 local infections the week before.
Among the nine infections reported on Friday, six were imported.
Hong Kong has reported 13,025 Covid-19 cases and 213 related deaths since the pandemic began.
Vaccinations for children
Lam said the government will make not vaccination a prerequisite for students to return to in-person classes after the Lunar New Year holiday because receiving and education is “the right of children.”
Earlier this week she announced that the age threshold for the China-made Sinovac vaccine would be lowered from 12 to five, and that outsourced medical teams will be sent to schools to inoculate pupils when teaching resumes after the break.
Meanwhile, the city is ramping up its testing capacity amid suspected undetected transmission in Tuen Mun, with long queues forming at Covid-19 testing stations after authorities confirmed a number of cases in the district.
The infections involve at least four people who had visited a pharmacy in a Tuen Mun shopping mall. A resident who works as a security guard at the Penny’s Bay quarantine facility also tested positive.
However, fears of an outbreak at a Tuen Mun health centre subsided after only one of two nurses who tested preliminary positive on Thursday was confirmed to be infected. The positive result for the second nurse was revealed to have come from Covid-19 vaccination cross contamination, the Centre for Health Protection said during a press briefing on Friday.
Authorities distributed 3,000 Covid-19 rapid test kids to residents in Tuen Mun on Friday, according to an official statement, which also said that the government “does not accept rapid test kit testing as a recognised testing method for fulfilling the compulsory testing requirement.” An 11th testing station was also set up.
Correction 15/1: A previous version of this article incorrectly claimed that Lam had said vaccination would be a prerequisite for children to return to school after Lunar New Year. It will not be a requirement.