China coronavirus: Hong Kong health minister admits Hubei entry ban ‘not 100 per cent effective’, ahead of meeting to discuss new measures against contagion

Chan Ho-him

Hong Kong’s health minister has admitted the government’s entry ban on visitors from Wuhan would not be fully effective as the city’s top officials prepared to discuss new measures against the spread of the deadly coronavirus on Monday.

A steering committee convened by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor decided late on Sunday to bar from entering Hong Kong all Hubei residents and those who had visited the Chinese province within 14 days. The move came into force at midnight with an exemption for city locals.

Twelve Hubei residents were stopped from getting into the city at a Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge checkpoint between midnight and 6am on Monday, a source said.

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Speaking on RTHK later that morning and wearing a mask, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee was asked how immigration officials would identify people from the central China province at the centre of the outbreak, and those who had recently visited it.

Chan conceded that while identity documents of mainland Chinese residents would show if the person lived in Hubei, the government relied on those who had visited the province to declare the information voluntarily.

“This [measure] is of course not going to be 100 per cent effective. We urge those who enter Hong Kong to make declarations honestly,” said Chan, warning penalties could apply to those who provided false information.

The government earlier said those who refused or provided false information when making declarations at the border could be imprisoned for up to six months and fined a maximum of HK$5,000 (US$643).

On whether the local government would consider putting Hong Kong residents who visited Hubei under quarantine, Chan said border control officers would focus their attention on residents at high risk of infection.

“The port health division would check their temperature, collect their personal details such as their phone number and address as well as health history … and depending on the situation, whether they need to be quarantined. We need to have comprehensive arrangements,” Chan said.

Chan added such measures – to be discussed on Monday – could involve following up on those who had already entered Hong Kong from Hubei before the latest ban was in place.

“In the meeting [on Sunday], we understand that there are different risks and situations, so in the meeting [on Monday], we will discuss more,” she said.

Asked if the government had been slow in responding to the contagion, Chan said the administration had to discuss border control measures with mainland authorities before implementation.

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Hong Kong officials had been working on the details of new measures behind the scenes, even if it seemed not much was happening publicly, the minister added.

As the source of the outbreak, the Hubei city of Wuhan confirmed nearly 700 cases of the virus, as of Sunday evening, with a total of 1,400 recorded across the province.

Eight patients in Hong Kong have been confirmed as having the Sars-like (severe acute respiratory syndrome) disease, with three new cases emerging on Sunday.

Senior figures in Hong Kong government are due to meet on Monday to discuss what to do next as part of their emergency response to the Wuhan coronavirus. Photo: Sam Tsang

Chan said it was necessary for the Hong Kong government to implement border control measures given the growing number of infected people.

The health chief admitted the government did not have figures for the total supply of face masks in the city, saying it was difficult to estimate.

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She only said the government had been in close contact with mask suppliers and new batches would arrive this week.

“We have spoken to many mask suppliers, but they were unable to provide an exact figure [on the total number masks]. Masks are still available in the market, and we’ve acknowledged that there is a tight supply,” said Chan, who wore a mask during the one-hour programme for the first time.

She did not wear a mask on another television programme on Sunday.

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