Hong Kong is making it mandatory for all local aircrew to receive Covid-19 booster shots, while requiring those who operate cargo flights to be tested daily and placed under stricter monitoring at outports.
The tougher measures were announced on Friday night in response to two Cathay Pacific cargo crew testing positive for the coronavirus two days earlier, sparking concerns that such a potential loophole could jeopardise the city’s efforts to match mainland China’s zero-infection policy in order to achieve a much sought-after border reopening.
The Transport and Housing Bureau said all local aircrew would now be required to receive their third dose of vaccines, while on-site personnel would be assigned to monitor cargo crew layovers at outports and ensure they complied with requirements minimising their exposure to communities overseas.
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Local cargo crew would have to be tested daily instead of every three days, and their movements in the city would be subjected to “more stringent restrictions … with a view to minimising their contact with the local community”, the bureau said.
It said it had met the aviation industry in the wake of the infections and had urged airlines to carry out the measures as soon as possible.
“To counter the risks arising from the latest developments of the Covid-19 epidemic and mutant strains, the bureau has reviewed and considered enhancements on all possible fronts, and has requested airlines to carry out the … measures,” it said.
The two Cathay pilots were among five cases confirmed on Wednesday, with their infections sparking calls from health experts for the removal of quarantine exemptions for cargo crews. In response, Cathay warned tightening measures would disrupt the global supply chain.
But in a statement on Friday evening, the airline said it fully recognised the government’s mission to keep the city free from Covid-19 and that it had been conducting an investigation into the cases.
“As an immediate action, we will step up our compliance checks at overseas stations to ensure Cathay Pacific’s health and safety protocols are being strictly followed by aircrew during their layovers,” it said.
The airline will require all eligible crew to receive a third dose of a vaccine. It will also issue further guidelines to strengthen requirements for aircrew movements in the local community during their medical surveillance periods and arrange for them to undergo daily testing.
The two pilots, aged 29 and 57, were exempted from quarantine on their return from Frankfurt on Saturday, and were staying at home in Tsim Sha Tsui and Discovery Bay, respectively.
Health officials put their household members and close contacts under quarantine, including 120 students at Discovery Bay International School.
Lee Wing-foo, chairman of the Staffs and Workers Union of Hong Kong Civil Airlines, said reactions were mixed about a third shot.
“We understand we need to protect ourselves and the community by getting the booster shot, but the government keeps adding new rules for the aviation sector, making it hard to operate,” Lee said.
Health officials on Friday confirmed one new Covid-19 case, imported from Britain and involving a mutant strain of the virus. That brought the city’s overall tally of confirmed cases to 12,378.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, will add nearly 100 more quarantine rooms for arriving domestic workers, bringing the total number available to around 2,000 as the city seeks to ease its shortage of helpers.
The Courtyard by Marriott Hong Kong Sha Tin will join the quarantine scheme next month to provide an extra 500 rooms at a cost of HK$650 (US$83) each per night. But the Silka Tsuen Wan hotel, which had previously provided 409 rooms for helpers, would be shifted to other quarantine purposes from December 1, the Labour Department said.
Designated quarantine places for domestic helpers also include the government facility at Penny’s Bay on Lantau Island, and the Rambler Garden Hotel in Tsing Yi, which provides 500 rooms.
The changes mean that from December 8, a total of 2,000 slots will be available for fully inoculated foreign domestic workers entering the city.
Recruitment agencies had earlier said the existing slots were far from sufficient to accommodate the large backlog of helpers – some 6,000 – waiting in the Philippines and Indonesia to come work in Hong Kong.
Separately, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung insisted his idea of introducing a vaccine pass for entry to public places would help the city reopen its borders, despite criticisms suggesting residents’ liberties would be compromised.
Full population vaccination was currently the “only viable option” to open the border safely to the mainland and the world, Yuen said.
Rather than springing the vaccine passes on the public, he suggested setting a date in March by which time residents would need to get their first two jabs, and another in July for getting a booster shot.
For the unvaccinated, a negative self-financed Covid-19 test or certificate of recovery from infection could also allow them to enter public premises. The information could be recorded in the “Leave Home Safe” contact-tracing app.
Quarantine could then be shortened to just 48 hours for international travellers who were fully vaccinated, as long as they were confirmed to have antibodies and tested negative three times during isolation, Yuen said. They could move freely around in the city after that, but would have to conduct daily testing and be tracked by “more powerful” devices for 21 days.
While supporting the use of a vaccine pass, Calvin Ho Wai-loon, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, suggested some emergency places, such as hospitals, should be exempted.
The government should balance residents’ freedoms and society’s interests when introducing the initiative, he added.
Ho, who is also a member of a World Health Organization working group to develop anti-pandemic tools, said the global body did not have a clear stance on vaccination passes because it worried about the lack of doses in poorer countries.
“I think Professor Yuen’s suggestion is not unreasonable. The scientific data has proved that vaccination is safe for people. I believe that it is a measure to encourage everyone to take the jab, but is not forcing them to do so,” Ho said, adding that residents had a civic responsibility to get tested if they choose not to be vaccinated.
Additional reporting by Kathleen Magramo
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