Hong Kong puts temporary flight bans in place amid omicron surge

A top epidemiologist warns that the city could now be at the start of its fifth wave of COVID-19 infections.
By Cheng Yut Yiu and Lau Siu Fung
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Hong Kong puts temporary flight bans in place amid omicron surge People gather outside a bar in Hong Kong on Jan. 6, 2022, ahead of a scheduled Jan. 7 closure of gyms, bars and evening restaurant dining in the city.

Authorities in Hong Kong have partially closed the city's borders to international travel amid a growing wave of infections with the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Passenger flights from the U.K., U.S., Australia and Canada have been banned from landing in the city for 14 days, as 38 newly confirmed cases were reported, 34 of them likely transmitted in the community, government figures showed.

Microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung said that the sources of some of the reported cases had yet to be traced, suggesting there is already an invisible chain of transmission in place.

"As we know, Hong Kong is a very small place, so it doesn't make much difference where the outbreak began; it will soon be all over the city," Yuen told a local radio show.

"The omicron variant is highly transmissible compared with the previous alpha and delta variants, so we have reason to believe that we may be seeing the fifth wave," he said. "I'm not trying to scare people."

He said the question is whether the government will try to maintain a "zero-COVID" policy in the face of the latest outbreak.

"It's likely that they will keep going with it for the time being, because vaccination rates are so low," Yuen said.

The government announced a series of regional "circuit-breakers" on Wednesday, banning civilian flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with passengers also barred from transiting through Hong Kong if they have come from those countries.

The measures will last until Jan. 21. Additional quarantine requirements will take effect for Hong Kong residents returning from Grenada, Mauritania and Mayotte, and non-Hong Kong residents from there will be barred from entering the city from Jan. 9, the government said.

Chief executive Carrie Lam said the government is hoping to drastically reduce the number of omicron cases with a "speedy assault."

The government has also ordered public, government-owned facilities like swimming pools, sports centers to close, banned large-scale sporting events including the Hong Kong Cycling Festival, and ordered bars, gyms and beauty salons to close.

Diners are banned from eating in restaurants after 6.00 p.m., while residential buildings in Ap Lei Chau, Happy Valley, North Point and Tai Po were placed under lockdown on Thursday for mandatory COVID-19 testing.

"We understand that this exercise will cause inconvenience to the public. The Government has made arrangements to carry out testing for all persons present in the 'restricted area' as soon as possible," a government spokesman said in a statement.

Failure to comply with the order could result in a fine of H.K.$25,000 and six months' imprisonment, the statement said.

"The advice given to me by my colleagues in the public health arena is we are facing a very dire situation of a major community outbreak any time, and that's why we have to take very decisive measures," Lam told a news conference. "

But she stopped short of closing schools。

”Not allowing young students to come to school, not having face-to-face learning, is significantly affecting their health, whether it's their mental health or their physical health," Lam said. "[So] for the time being ... we are not suspending classes."

Meanwhile, Lam hit out at flag-carrier airline Cathay Pacific after its crew were found to have broken quarantine regulations at the end of 2021.

"As everyone knows, I summoned the top leaders of Cathay Pacific on Dec. 31, including the chairman and chief executive officer of Cathay Pacific," she said. "I told them that the whole city will have to pay a huge price, because their crew members did not follow the quarantine arrangements laid down by the government."

"They have to conduct a comprehensive investigation and submit a report to the Hong Kong government. At the same time, appropriate disciplinary action must be taken internally," she said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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