Coronavirus: 281 Hongkongers return home after two months of lockdown in Hubei

Kimmy Chung

Two of four government-chartered flights bringing home about 500 Hongkongers from two months of lockdown in the coronavirus’ original epicentre in central China landed in the city on Wednesday.

Some 281 residents stranded in Hubei during the province’s shutdown are finally back on home soil, some expressing their relief at the end of their ordeal and others fearing their fate in Hong Kong where infections continue to rise.

The rest of those registered for the flights were set to return on Thursday, several weeks after 460 Hong Kong residents were evacuated from Wuhan.

A family registers with immigration authorities at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport before finally returning to Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

On Wednesday, all of Hubei province, except its capital Wuhan where the virus outbreak began, came out of a lockdown imposed on January 23 to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of those Hongkongers stranded said they had to make their own way home because the flights could not take them, as critics accused the government of taking too long to help the thousands of Hongkongers stuck there since the health crisis erupted.

Unlike the 460 previously evacuated who had to be quarantined in government camps, this week’s returnees – who were mainly under lockdown in the cities of Xianning, Xiaogan and Huangshi – are allowed to spend the 14-day quarantine period at home.

A woman, who gave her surname as Chan, said she was happy to be home after being separated from her 12-year-old daughter for two months.

She went to mainland China for an urgent family matter before Lunar New Year and was trapped in Huangshi.

“At the beginning we were all panic,” she said, wearing a mask and gloves at Hong Kong International Airport’s arrival hall on Wednesday night.

“But all citizens there have cooperated with the authorities and I slowly got used to my new life.

“We have been quarantined for two months. I think Hubei province is now the safest area, and I am actually worried about the situation in Hong Kong.”

Another Hongkonger, also returning from Huangshi, said: “What I miss about Hong Kong most? Freedoms here. I was like under home arrest for two months.”

Those on the flights were not given protective gowns. They will not be required to wear the wristbands that are essential for those returning from overseas, but they have been asked to report their locations via an application installed on their mobile phones.

While the number of coronavirus cases accelerates across much of the world including Hong Kong, where the total surpassed 400 on Wednesday, there has been a slowdown on the mainland.

Speaking at the airport on Wednesday night, Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, the mainland affairs minister, said three of the registered Hongkongers could not board the flights after failing temperature checks.

Of the 500 people registered for the four government-arranged flights, about a quarter were aged 16 or below, he added.

“Compared with three weeks ago, the epidemic situation of the province has significantly improved,” Nip said, adding the home-quarantine arrangements for the returnees was deemed “appropriate” following risk assessments.

“Overseas imported cases are now the major sources of infection in Hong Kong.”

Nip said they would keep contact with officials in Hubei and see if further assistance was needed for Hongkongers still in the province.

Hubei ended its lockdown on Wednesday, but travel from Hubei to other provinces still requires a person to have a “green code”, proving he or she has been free of Covid-19 symptoms.

“Wuhan is still under lockdown until April, and there’s no flight out of Wuhan, so bringing those people stranded there for months home is necessary,” Nip said.

More than 3,900 people marooned across Hubei province have sought help from the Hong Kong government. Among them was Simon Chen who blasted the government response.

Chen took his wife and four children aged four to 13 with him on a business trip to Wuhan on January 20 before they were stranded a three-hour drive away in Hubei’s second-largest city, Xiangyang.

“I thought women and juveniles were given priority to take the chartered flights but we were not,” he said, adding he knew of a middle-aged man staying six hours from Wuhan who boarded while they could not.

Chen ended up hiring a driver on Tuesday to take them all the way down to Zhuhai, in Guangdong province, after securing documents from the Hong Kong and Wuhan authorities following months of negotiation.

Chen and the children were given the all-clear to cross the border into Hong Kong but his wife, who is from Shenzhen can only enter after 14 days of quarantine in Zhuhai.

“The government likes staging a show. They should have sent chartered flights much earlier but they did not.”

Meanwhile, Nip also revealed that a 62-year-old Hongkonger who had contracted the disease died in Wuhan last Friday, the second Hong Kong fatality there during the crisis. Another 12 infected had all been discharged, he added.

 

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