Hong Kong hit by travel restrictions from countries with close business and tourism ties, as coronavirus fears spread

Denise Tsang

Hong Kong is feeling the impact of countries with close business and tourism ties to the city imposing restrictions on arrivals because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

The daily supply of Japanese seafood and fruit, highly popular and typically flown to the city in the cargo hold of passenger jets, is under threat because of fewer flights expected as a result of new immigration controls unveiled by the country on Thursday night.

There was also confusion and alarm among travellers to Thailand on Friday as authorities from the kingdom first issued conflicting messages about quarantining arrivals from Hong Kong, then later clarified they would have to provide daily reports on their health when in the country, but stopped short of imposing a mandatory quarantine.

This came as the city confirmed three more Covid-19 cases – a 56-year-old businessman who had visited London and Paris, an 85-year-old man who had toured Mumbai, and the 69-year-old husband of an earlier patient – taking Hong Kong’s tally to 107.

I find the latest immigration arrangement puzzling, because Hong Kong and Macau’s situation is relatively stable

Simon Wong, Hong Kong Japanese Food and Cuisine Association

Health officials also announced they would start clinical trials with still-unproven antiviral drug Remdesivir, offering it to patients at three public hospitals starting from next week.

From Monday, Japan will impose a 14-day compulsory quarantine period on all travellers from mainland China and South Korea, while visa-free entry for residents of Hong Kong and Macau will be suspended.

Departure gates sit empty at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Photo: Reuters

Those allowed in will be restricted to entering Japan via just two airports: Narita and Kansai. This is despite Macau announcing that the last of its 10 Covid-19 patients had been discharged from hospital on Friday afternoon.

In Hong Kong, the Department of Health announced that from midnight on Sunday all inbound travellers arriving at the airport would have to fill in a health declaration form, extending a requirement that previously applied only to visitors from mainland China.

It also called on Hongkongers to consider deferring unnecessary travel outside the city.

Alice Chan Cheung Lok-yee, executive director of the Hong Kong government-backed Travel Industry Council, said she expected airlines to reduce or even cancel flights between the city and Japan soon.

At least 10 tour groups with about 230 travellers were still in the country, according to Chan, and they might change their itineraries due to the flight situation.

While airlines were still digesting the new restrictions, Japanese food importer Dennis Tokuaki Wu said flight reductions or cancellations would have a direct impact on the supply of raw fish, seafood and agricultural products.

“The worst scenario is the supply of fresh food will dry up in Hong Kong, because it is flown in cargo of passenger flights,” he said. “So there are risks Hong Kong may not have sashimi or fresh fruit from Japan if flights are cancelled.”

Fresh fruit from Japan has long been popular with Hongkongers. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong has been the No 1 export market for Japanese agricultural and seafood products for the past 11 years, and has the largest number of Japanese restaurants outside Japan.

Japan’s decision to tighten immigration controls comes after reporting more than 1,000 confirmed Covid-19 infections – including some 700 passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship – with six related deaths as of Friday morning.

“I find the latest immigration arrangement puzzling, because Hong Kong and Macau’s situation is relatively stable,” said Simon Wong Kit-lung, chairman of Hong Kong Japanese Food and Cuisine Association.

“We are closely monitoring any flight changes, which will directly affect imports and supplies to Japanese restaurants in the city.”

Wong, also chairman of LH Group, one of the city’s biggest restaurant chains with 40 mostly Japanese eateries, said it was trying to clarify with Japanese authorities about the status of travellers with business visas.

“Many of our members’ business trips have been disrupted as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, and they are turning to e-commerce mainly,” he said.

Issue of sanctions hot topic for Hong Kong delegation in talks with US officials

Earlier on Friday, Hong Kong travellers were left in a state of confusion and even alarm after Thailand’s government announced it would impose restrictions on arrivals from the city and mainland China, then gave conflicting information as to whether they would be quarantined.

Thai health authorities later clarified that travellers from Hong Kong and five other jurisdictions would have to issue daily reports on their physical condition while in the kingdom, but they would not be placed under quarantine.

Dr Thanarak Palipat, deputy director general of Thailand’s Disease Control Department, said those arrivals would be required from the “next one or two days” to keep local officials informed of their health status daily over two weeks.

The measures would apply to jurisdictions previously classified as “dangerous communicable diseases areas” by the Thai government, identified as mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Italy and Iran.

Another Thai health official recommended that arrivals from these jurisdictions quarantine themselves on a voluntary basis, reversing an earlier announcement that it would be compulsory.

Additional reporting by Karen Zhang and Brian Wong

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