The Kwai Chung Covid-19 cluster at the centre of Hong Kong’s latest outbreak has ballooned to 173 infections, with cases confirmed in at least seven blocks of the sprawling housing estate. In light of the outbreak, the government announced it would implement work from home arrangements for civil servants from Tuesday.

Authorities said on Sunday that 108 new cases – positive and preliminary positive – were linked to Kwai Chung Estate.

covid press con sunday
Hong Kong officials give an update of the city’s latest Covid-19 situation at a press conference on Sunday. Photo: GovHK

Yat Kwai House, where infections were first detected last Wednesday, has recorded 126 cases. The outbreak at a neighbouring block, Ying Kwai House, has grown to 41 cases. Both buildings, home to around 5,000 residents in total, were placed under five-day lockdowns last Friday and Saturday, respectively.

“A number of cases [in those two buildings] involve residents who work at hospitals and at elderly homes,” said health secretary Sophia Chan during a press conference on Sunday. “The situation is concerning.”

Hong Kong recorded 140 new cases on Sunday, the highest since July 30, 2020. Among them, 125 – including four with no known transmission links – were local infections.

Return to work from home

Meanwhile, the government announced on Monday that civil servants are to work from home amid the latest outbreak. Arrangements will be implemented “with a view to reducing the number of staff present at the same time in the office, while generally maintaining basic public services and not affecting anti-epidemic work,” a statement read.

Covid-19 coronavirus mask
People wearing face masks in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

Employers are also encouraged to allow staff to work remotely “as far as possible.” The last time the government implemented work-from-home policies was in December 2020, when Hong Kong saw its fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

Students have already returned to remote learning. Authorities ordered the suspension of in-person classes at secondary schools last Thursday, following the closure of kindergartens and primary schools earlier.

Cases confirmed at 7 Kwai Chung blocks

Two cases have been detected at Nga Kwai House, and one each at Hiu Kwai House, Yuk Kwai House, Chin Kwai House and Chun Kwai House, all on Kwai Chung Estate. Authorities did not impose curfews on the blocks as the risk of an outbreak was perceived to be low, but residents must get tested daily for the coming week.

Carrie Lam Kwai Chung Estate
(Second to left) Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary John Lee, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan inspecting Kwai Chung Estate on January 23, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

There are a total of 16 blocks in Kwai Chung Estate.

“The development of the outbreak at Kwai Chung Estate in recent days is similar to the spread of Omicron abroad,” Chan said. ” At the moment we do not see an exponential increase in cases [in the community], but we must pay close attention to the results of mandatory testing everyday to conduct risk assessment.”

The cluster at Kwai Chung Estate is believed to have started with a 64-year-old cleaner who works at Yat Kwai House and lives at Ying Kwai House.

Government enforces “restriction-testing declaration” and compulsory testing at Fu Keung House, Tai Wo Hau Estate. Photo: GovHK

Separately, a resident of Tai Wo Hau Estate – located next to Kwai Chung Estate – tested positive for Covid-19, authorities said on Sunday. An overnight testing order at the estate’s Fu Keung House, where the 18-year-old woman lives, did not return any infections. Authorities have not identified the source of her infection.

‘Huge mess’

The government’s lockdown arrangements have come under fire from residents at affected Kwai Chung Estate blocks, who complained about long wait times to get tested and poor hygiene in the building’s corridors after around 40 cleaners were sent into mandatory quarantine.

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Rubbish at a Kwai Chung Estate housing block under Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Ben Chan via Facebook

Lawmaker Ben Chan, who represents the New Territories South West constituency that includes Kwai Chung, said he received more than 1,000 complaints from residents calling for help.

“Different blocks are being handled by different government departments. Communication and information flow is a huge mess,” Chan’s Sunday Facebook post read.

He said that residents were concerned that waiting over an hour to get tested at the mobile testing stations set up downstairs would increase the risk of cross-contamination, and urged the government to conduct door-to-door testing for the estate’s many elderly and physically disabled residents.

ben chan kwai chung
Lawmaker Ben Chan arrives at Kwai Chung Estate to assist residents under lockdown. Photo: Ben Chan via Facebook

Pictures of rubbish-filled corridors have also circulated online. Chan said he requested that the government send personnel from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to deal with the waste that had accumulated.

‘2 to 3 months’

Local media reported on Monday morning that around 30 more Covid-19 cases linked to Kwai Chung Estate have been confirmed. Among them were 20 residents of Yat Kwai House.

“The highly transmissible Omicron variant, ravaging all over the world, has caused a dramatic change to the local epidemic situation,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a statement on Sunday.

testing booths kwai chung
Government enforces “restriction-testing declaration” and compulsory testing notice at Nga Kwai House, Kwai Chung Estate, on January 22, 2022. Photo: GovHK

Lam visited the Covid-hit estate earlier in the day. She stayed for around 15 minutes, during which residents heckled her and accused her of putting on a “PR show.”

Leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung estimated that the current wave “might take two to three months” to come under control on a TVB show on Sunday morning.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.