Hong Kong’s health minister has said the city is not ready for a major downscaling of social-distancing rules, cautioning against moving too quickly and wiping out its efforts in containing the fourth Covid-19 wave.
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee insisted on Tuesday that conditions were not right for wholesale changes after announcing a partial easing of restrictions from Thursday to allow swimming pools and beaches to reopen, while cinemas, theme parks and performance venues would be able to admit more people.
The leader’s de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, also endorsed an exemption for religious venues, a source said. While gatherings of more than four people would be allowed again at churches and other religious venues, attendance must not exceed 30 per cent of capacity. The new arrangement is expected to come into effect on Wednesday.
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Premises such as bars, karaoke lounges and mahjong parlours must remain closed.
Chan explained the cautious approach as Hong Kong recorded seven new coronavirus infections, six of which were imported. The sole local infection was linked to a previous case. The city’s tally of confirmed infections stood at 11,461, with 205 related deaths.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, meanwhile, said she hoped to receive as soon as possible the final report from an inquiry into the packaging defects that forced the suspension of BioNTech vaccinations, so the programme could resume.
Health officials last Wednesday abruptly stopped Hong Kong’s BioNTech vaccination roll-out on the advice of the jabs’ supplier, after the scheme’s frontline staff identified more than 50 defects to vials, including cracks and leaks, as well as stains on their exterior.
An initial investigation did not find any problems with the vaccines’ quality or efficacy, Lam said before her weekly meeting with members of her cabinet.
On whether the government would require Hongkongers to get vaccinated as a condition of taking part in the quarantine-free “travel bubble” agreements the city was pursuing, Lam said that was a matter for other jurisdictions to decide.
“Whether we will make it mandatory depends on the discussions. If the other side says that you have to make sure that travellers from Hong Kong coming to our place, like Singapore, have to be fully vaccinated, then we will have to tell the people that if you want to benefit from this air travel bubble, you will have to be vaccinated,” Lam said. “If they don’t have those requirements, we won’t make it mandatory.”
Officials have said they will relaunch efforts to strike quarantine-free travel bubble deals with more than 10 countries, and have already written to the governments of Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Australia to start talks.
Health minister Chan told an RTHK programme the city did not currently “have the conditions for substantial relaxations” of its social-distancing rules.
“The outbreak has eased and there were times when the city recorded zero local transmissions … but we do not wish to see our efforts to control the fourth wave be wiped out,” she said. “We need to be very careful about this.”
The decision to relax a handful of social-distancing measures was made after taking into account Hongkongers’ wishes to venture out during the Easter holiday, which would begin this Friday, Chan said.
Responding to bar owners’ demands to let them reopen after months of closure, Chan said that would depend on various factors including whether the city was still recording untraceable local infections.
She also appealed again to the public to get vaccinated, saying the programme offered hope for a return to normal life.
Meanwhile, in its latest findings, an expert committee monitoring the adverse reactions of Covid-19 vaccinations on Tuesday concluded the second death following a Sinovac shot, involving a 55-year-old woman who died on March 6, was not caused by the jab. A full autopsy report showed the woman died of a heart attack, and no other immune reactions due to the vaccine were identified.
The committee also concluded the first death following a Covid-19 vaccination was not due to the shot.
The other 11 deaths, including two people who received BioNTech shots, were also found to be not directly associated with the inoculations based on preliminary information. But the assessments would be concluded when more information was made available.
Meanwhile, a 28-year-old man who arrived from the United States was found to have the mutant virus strain E484K, after he first tested negative for the N501Y mutation, a variant originally found in Britain. The E484K mutation was seen in variants first identified in South Africa and those initially reported in Japan and Brazil.
The man was admitted to North Lantau Hospital Hong Kong Infection Control Centre and placed in the same cohort as three other confirmed patients before authorities learned of the specific variant on Monday evening. He and the other patients were placed in individual isolation as a precautionary measure.
As of Tuesday, 455,900 people, or 6.1 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population, had received their first dose of a vaccine. About 304,600 had taken the Sinovac jab and around 151,300 took the BioNTech one. About 34,300 recipients, or 0.5 per cent of the population, had received their second Sinovac shot.
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