Covid-19 restrictions on in-person classes would be further eased to allow as many as two-thirds of pupils to return to schools after Easter, the Hong Kong government said on Friday, while 11 new coronavirus cases were confirmed.
The Post also learned that officials were considering allowing church gatherings in time for the holiday, with the decision dependent on the coronavirus situation stabilising over the next few days.
The review of existing curbs came as the city reported three local infections, including one untraceable case. Eight cases were imported from Indonesia, the Philippines and Pakistan. All but one of the imported infections involved a mutant strain of the coronavirus, taking the total number of such cases identified in Hong Kong to 128.
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The city’s tally of confirmed infections stood at 11,439, while the death of a 78-year-old man with chronic disease at Tuen Mun Hospital pushed the number of related fatalities to 205. Fewer than 10 preliminary-positive cases were reported.
The sole untraceable infection involved a 38-year-old Japanese flight attendant. But she had not been at work since last November and stayed in Hong Kong. She lives in a subdivided flat in Causeway Bay and around 10 other tenants will be quarantined. A compulsory testing order was issued for the building.
She received her first dose of the BioNTech vaccine on March 15 but health authorities said the woman was likely to have contracted the virus before she took the jab.
“Generally, vaccines take some time to trigger an immune response in the body. It usually takes at least two weeks, and Covid-19 shots require both doses for effective protection,” said Dr Albert Au Ka-wing of the Centre for Health Protection. “Although she had onset of symptoms on March 18, her incubation period should have begun on March 4, so she was probably infected before vaccination.”
The woman went to GO24 Fitness branch in North Point multiple times during her incubation and communicable period. Health authorities suggested the gym close for 14 days, while around 20 classmates and four instructors would be quarantined.
“The risk of [an outbreak] exists … but we need to observe if there are other cases arising from this gym. If there are further cases then that means there is an outbreak and we will implement more stringent measures, for example, requiring all attendees to be quarantined just like the Ursus cluster,” Au said.
One of the local cases was tied to the superspreading cluster linked to the Ursus Fitness gym in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood, taking the size of the outbreak to 155.
Meanwhile, a source familiar with policymaking said officials deemed religious gatherings as lower risk and so pandemic restrictions could be eased to let the public congregate at churches and other faith venues in time for the start of Easter next Friday.
The government was still deciding whether the maximum capacity for religious gatherings should be capped at half or a third of the premises’ permitted capacity. Attendees would not be allowed to eat or drink during services, the source said.
The source added the government was this time taking a more cautious approach to easing social-distancing curbs, so it might not consider relaxing rules in other areas at this stage.
It is understood the Executive Council is set to endorse the suggestions for religious gatherings next Tuesday at the earliest.
The Education Bureau announced on Friday that two-thirds of the student population in all of Hong Kong’s primary and secondary schools, as well as kindergartens, would be allowed to return to campus for half-day sessions after the Easter holiday ends on April 9.
Secondary schools can arrange for students to return either in the morning or in the afternoon, but pupils cannot return on a full-day basis to avoid them gathering together at lunchtime. Only morning classes will be allowed at primary schools. The bureau will provide details for all schools next week.
School grounds have been shut for much of the past year because of the Covid-19 crisis, with most students taking lessons online.
Under the revised arrangements introduced after the Lunar New Year holiday in late February, all schools were allowed to bring back up to a third of their student population for half-day sessions.
Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said the public should remain vigilant even with trends indicating that the months-long fourth Covid-19 wave was coming to an end.
“Restaurants and bars and pubs are high risk, and they need to maintain high levels of ventilation and hygiene,” he said.
Hui said he believed the next easing of social-distancing rules should only come after Easter, warning coronavirus outbreaks tended to worsen after holiday periods. Those establishments deemed higher risk, such as bars and karaoke venues, should reopen much later, he added.
To pave the way for the industry’s return, the Hong Kong Tourism Board on Friday launched a campaign offering discounted hotel stays to customers spending at least HK$800 in shops and restaurants.
The HK$500 staycation discounts apply to about 140 participating hotels, including top-end ones such as The Peninsula and Rosewood in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Mandarin Oriental in Central. Stays under the discount scheme are available from April 9, with a quota of 20,000 bookings.
The city lifted a raft of restrictions on February 18, allowing the reopening of all sports venues, fitness centres, beauty and massage parlours, cinemas, and some entertainment facilities. Public performance venues such as concert halls, theme parks, and exhibition centres could also resume operations.
Restaurants have since received the green light to resume dine-in services until 10pm and accommodate up to four people per table. The current round of measures are set to expire on March 31.
However, soon after last month’s changes, Hong Kong was hit by a superspreading cluster emerging from Ursus Fitness.
Since then health authorities have not relaxed Covid-19 rules further, focusing instead on encouraging residents to get vaccinated under the citywide scheme which started in late February.
Reverend Peter Douglas Koon Ho-ming, provincial secretary general of the Anglican church, said he hoped the government could approve the return of religious events, with churches unable to hold services since December.
Churches would be expected to follow stringent measures on sanitising and temperature checks, while also recording the details of those attending gatherings for tracing purposes.
On the vaccination front, Hui hoped that shots using Germany’s BioNTech jabs – which have been suspended in the city since Wednesday due to vial defects – could resume shortly after investigations had been completed.
Hui added it was his understanding that vaccine distributor Fosun Pharma was sourcing another supply chain of BioNTech jabs from Germany to provide more stability to Hong Kong stocks.
As of 8pm on Friday, 429,500 people, or about 5.7 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population, had been vaccinated. Of those, around 278,200 received a first dose of the Sinovac vaccine, while 5,600 took the second shot, including 5,100 on the first day the booster jab was rolled out to the public. Around 151,300 people received their first dose of the BioNTech jab since the vaccination drive began.
Officials on Wednesday abruptly suspended the BioNTech programme after frontline staff reported to the manufacturer dozens of instances of defective packaging involving “batch 210102”. City authorities dismissed safety concerns but said they were taking no chances.
Another 758,000 doses from a second batch of the jabs are in storage and have not been used. Hui said he believed that batch should be safe to use when the vaccination programme restarted for those needing booster shots.
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