A potential loophole that could allow a mutant Covid-19 strain to penetrate Hong Kong’s borders will be plugged from midnight on Friday, with the government tightening the “closed-loop” arrangements for quarantine-exempted local aircrew.
The government is removing the provision permitting some individuals to wait for their coronavirus test results at airport hotels, a decision mainly affecting Cathay Pacific pilots, cabin crew, and foreign airlines.
Starting this weekend, all inbound travellers, including those with exemptions, will have to stay in the confines of Hong Kong International Airport, and will only be allowed to proceed to their hotel once they test negative.
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Government health experts on Thursday night said the city needed to further crack down on the risk of transmission involving mutant variants to ensure there would be no local spread into the community.
Industry sources warned of a possible impact on foreign airlines, because requiring flight crews to stay at the airport would deny them rest and could disrupt flight schedules due to short layover times in Hong Kong.
Hundreds of aircrew working for Cathay are exempt from quarantine, working under a “closed-loop” arrangement by flying for three weeks and living in airport hotels throughout.
Crews therefore enter and leave Hong Kong frequently while working on flights, but are also subject to strict conditions while staying overseas. They must subsequently undergo two weeks of continuous quarantine before being allowed to re-enter the community.
“The government has further reviewed the ‘Test and Hold’ conditions … with a view to further minimise the chance of transmission of the virus from imported cases into the community,” a Hong Kong Port Health Division memo to airlines said.
The airport health authority also said it was designed to further limit possible social contact involving people who were exempt before their test results were available.
In response, Cathay Pacific pointed out its operating crew had completed 11,000 Covid-19 tests with zero positive cases this year.
“We will continue to fully comply with all directives,” a spokeswoman said. “Like all airlines, we follow the advice of leading health experts and the requirements of governments all over the world.”
Mark Hoey, Cathay Pacific’s general manager for operations, told staff the bad news in an email seen by the Post: “I truly wish I was the conveyor of better news but yet another obstacle has been thrown at us.”
The changes could cause another backlash against Hong Kong’s border controls, which have already raised the ire of FedEx and the US’s mission in the city.
FedEx has a 180 pilots based in Hong Kong who were forced to move to San Francisco temporarily to avoid disruption to the cargo carrier’s flight schedules under the new quarantine rules for aircrew.
On Wednesday, the US Department of Transport ordered Cathay Pacific to submit flight schedules within seven days, in the first response to finding a resolution for FedEx, citing unfair competition weighted in favour of Hong Kong carriers.
The city has detected 96 incidents of coronavirus strains among 448 imported cases between last December and Wednesday, of which 37 were variants first found in Britain, eight similar to the South Africa strain and five from Brazil. The rest remain uncategorised.
Hong Kong’s heightened caution against Covid-19 variants came as eligibility for the citywide vaccination campaign was extended to 5.5 million people, or 80 per cent of its population. All residents aged over 30, along with other priority groups, can book vaccination appointments.
Professor Lau Yu-lung, chairman of the scientific committee on vaccine preventable diseases at the Centre for Health Protection, said the 21-day hotel quarantine arrangement remained a vital defence against the mutant strain.
The scientific committee on Thursday said the German-made Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should be effective against protecting people from Covid-19 variants found in Britain and Brazil, but was less so against a South African strain.
There was insufficient data to reach a conclusion on the Chinese-made Sinovac option, the committee added.