Coronavirus: Hong Kong may be able to ease social-distancing restrictions in early May, top medical experts say

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Hong Kong could be in a position to start relaxing some of its social-distancing measures by early next month, according to top health experts, as the city confirmed two new Covid-19 cases, both imported, on Thursday.

It was the 12th day in a row that the daily rise in infections remained under double digits, and experts said the transmission of Covid-19 had weakened, while most local cases were traceable.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, who has advocated hardline coronavirus measures and been critical of the government’s response, said the city could consider lifting some restrictions after two weeks, if new infections remained in single digits on most days.

The two new cases had a history of recent travel in the US, Britain and Europe. One was a 58-year-old man who had failed to report his symptoms while quarantined and later went for dental treatment and a haircut at a luxury hotel after his release. Their cases took the city’s tally to 1,035 since January, with four related deaths.

“Overall, the transmission within the community is slowing down, and we see the silver lining for cutting off local transmission,” Ho said. “If we can keep up the momentum, some social-distancing measures can be lifted after May 7.”

The government announced on Tuesday that the temporary ban on some businesses opening would be extended, with bars, pubs, beauty salons, massage parlours and karaoke bars among the 11 kinds of premises that would have to remain shut until at least May 7.

Ho pointed to the actions of the World Health Organisation after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, when a travel ban on Hong Kong was lifted based on a few objective factors.

“Criteria could include an apparent fall in the number of confirmed cases, no export of cases from Hong Kong, as well as when most of the local infection cases are traceable,” he told a radio programme. “We have fulfilled most of these criteria, and only two of the [recent] local infections are from unknown sources.”

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He said the most serious local infection clusters were linked to nightlife districts and bars, but the last related case was confirmed on April 13. Since then, there had been only two local cases.

But at a daily press briefing, Undersecretary for Food and Health Dr Chui Tak-yi did not give a definite date on easing the measures, saying restrictions had to remain in place for now. The authorities had already relaxed a requirement for restaurants to cut their customer capacity by half.

“Whether to adjust it further will depend on the latest situation in due course,” he said

Another authority on public health, respiratory medicine expert Dr David Hui Shu-cheong, agreed with Ho that the city was doing well in containing another community outbreak.

But Hui, who advises the government on its pandemic response, had some reservations based on the case of an airline employee at Hong Kong International Airport.

“The Virgin Atlantic ground attendant diagnosed on Sunday is a bit worrying. Although she works at the airport, there is no proof she contracted it from any inbound visitors, and she had been working with around 70 colleagues since the onset of her symptoms,” he said.

“The following few days will be significant, and we hope there will not be another outbreak.”

Hui said if the number of new local cases remained low in the next two weeks, some measures could be relaxed, such as all civil servants returning to their workplaces, while certain establishments could reopen.

“But bars and beauty parlours might be the last ones to reopen, due to their higher risks of transmission,” he said.

However, the two experts disagreed when it came to completely lifting all restrictions.

Ho said the administration could only do that when there had been no local cases for 28 days, or two 14-day incubation periods for the infection, while Hui said the city had a little more leeway.

“The coronavirus is a totally new virus, and we can expect there will be a few cases getting into the community once in a while,” Hui said.

“I believe as long as it is not an outbreak, we can evaluate and relax most of the measures after 28 days. Otherwise, it may have a serious [economic] impact on our society.”

The 58-year-old man confirmed infected on Thursday had returned home from Britain and the United States, while the second patient, a 27-year-old man, had visited Switzerland and France.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said the elder man had returned to Hong Kong on March 24 and lived alone in a serviced apartment in Happy Valley. His symptoms emerged on March 26 while under home quarantine, but he did not see a doctor for almost a month.

He went to his office in the Hong Kong Club Building in Central on April 7, but no colleagues were present. Two days later, he attended a dental clinic at Melbourne Plaza in Central.

On Tuesday, he used a hair salon at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central, and then visited a private clinic for Covid-19 testing.

“We cannot rule out this person might have created some risks in the community,” Chuang said.

Meanwhile, officials admitted a plan to isolate asymptomatic airport arrivals at the Regal Oriental Hotel in Kowloon City pending their Covid-19 test results had suffered teething problems.

Hotel staff complained about poor logistics, lax security and insufficient protective gear.

The holding centre received its first batch of 286 arrivals on Wednesday. All tested negative for Covid-19 and were allowed to leave to serve their 14-day quarantine at home.

Admitting to initial problems, Chui, the health undersecretary, pledged to improve logistics and communication. The hotel said the Department of Health was responsible for security arrangements and had provided it with “qualified equipment”.

Separately, Urban Renewal Authority chairman Chow Chung-kong announced rent reductions of up to 75 per cent for residential and commercial tenants at URA projects and its joint development schemes until September to help businesses struggling amid the pandemic.

Additional reporting by Victor Ting

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