Hong Kong police and government officers issued a total of HK$5 million (US$643,000) in fines to 980 residents over breaches of social-distancing rules in a sweep that began on the eve of the five-day Easter break.
News of the crackdown emerged as the city confirmed seven more Covid-19 cases on Tuesday – three locally transmitted and the rest imported – amid calls for officials to consider banning flights from high-risk countries to protect against new coronavirus variants.
With the recent prevalence of imported cases, health experts said the government should weigh the impact on Hong Kong families wanting to hire domestic helpers if they needed to consider suspending flights from countries such as the Philippines.
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Police accounted for the lion’s share of the fines handed out over the weekend, issuing 959 fixed-penalty notices. But the Leisure and Cultural Services Department also gave out more than 14,000 verbal warnings in addition to issuing 21 fines of its own during patrols of venues looking for breaches of social-distancing rules.
The Easter sweep involved raids on illegal gambling premises, restaurants, unlicensed bars and party rooms, according to police, with about 48 per cent of the fines levied in the Kowloon West region.
In December, the penalty for flouting Hong Kong’s Covid-19 regulations on public gatherings, wearing masks and mandatory testing was increased from HK$2,000 to HK$5,000 (US$260 to US$640).
Currently, dine-in service at restaurants is allowed until 10pm, with a maximum of four people per table. But masks must be worn at all times when not eating or drinking. Swimming pools and beaches also reopened last Thursday.
Bars, pubs and party rooms, however, remain closed, while live music and dance performances at restaurants are also banned.
Of Tuesday’s four imported Covid-19 cases, three were from India and one from Pakistan. The three local cases – all with traceable sources of infections and involving residents of Wah Tong House, Yau Tong Estate in Yau Tong – were logged after a single community-transmitted infection was confirmed the previous day. The city’s official case tally now stands at 11,531, with 205 related deaths.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government adviser on the Covid-19 pandemic, noted infections with virus variants from the Philippines recently accounted for about 40 per cent of all reports of mutated strains in the city. Many of those cases involved domestic helpers.
Asked if officials should examine banning flights from the Philippines, he said: “The government needs to consider it. But you also need to consider that it would create difficulties for those who want to hire domestic helpers if flights from the Philippines are banned. I believe the government will need to examine many factors.”
Hui, a respiratory medicine expert from Chinese University, suggested the government look into asking intermediaries to arrange vaccinations for domestic helpers before they arrived in the city.
Hui also warned that Hong Kong continued to record untraceable cases from time to time, showing there were still silent transmission chains in the city.
Echoing Hui, Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, co-chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said any decision to ban flights from a certain destination should be made on a case-by-case basis, if that was the approach required.
“Hong Kong has many families hiring domestic helpers from the Philippines. If flights have to be banned from there, will this affect some families in the city?” he said.
Tsang said the Immigration Department and the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) would need to assess how to minimise the impact on families who had already hired domestic helpers from the country.
Professor Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist from the University of Hong Kong, said authorities should consider suspending flights from the Philippines, India and Pakistan, although he acknowledged that would be a tough decision to make.
“If you don’t control the risk of importing the virus, I worry the fifth wave will emerge from a community outbreak caused by virus variants,” Ho said.
He noted there were still risks of imported coronavirus infections getting into the community, warning the screening of airport staff was not performed frequently enough. Pointing to other potential loopholes, he said there were low vaccination rates among quarantine hotel staff, who he added did not have to be tested every week.
Ho suggested anti-pandemic efforts should be stepped up in these hotels as well as the airport, while arrivals from high-risk places might also need to undergo more stringent testing.
Tsang noted the government could shorten compulsory quarantine for arrivals from a wider range of countries deemed low risk, after officials agreed to reduce the confinement period to two weeks for people entering from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
“The government or the CHP have to pay close attention to the occurrence of the virus variants in every place, particularly whether virus variants were found in places deemed to be low risk,” he said.
From April 9, the compulsory isolation period for arrivals from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore will be cut from 21 days to 14 followed by a week of self-monitoring including a requirement to take a coronavirus test.
Meanwhile, Dr David Lam Tzit-yuen, who runs a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai, said a mix-up involving a cancer patient and his companion who received the wrong jabs “shouldn’t have happened”.
“There are multiple procedures to check [details of residents taking the vaccines]. A mistake will only occur when all procedures during the process failed to pick up [the problem],” said Lam, chairman of the pro-government health workers’ group Medical Conscience.
The Post exclusively reported on Sunday that 55-year-old blood cancer patient David Allardice and his companion were given the China-made Sinovac jab rather than the BioNTech one from Germany they had booked, after turning up to the wrong venue.
They were due to receive the BioNTech jab at Hiu Kwong Street Sports Centre in Kwun Tong on March 18, but mistakenly went to Kowloon Bay Sports Centre, which is about 3km (1.9 miles) away and only administers Sinovac jabs.
Allardice said he was waved through without proper checks and given the shot he had deliberately decided to avoid after consulting his doctor about his condition.
The Civil Service Bureau – which runs the city’s Covid-19 vaccination drive – apologised for the mishap and admitted reception staff failed to screen Allardice and his companion, as was required.
Health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee on Tuesday, meanwhile, urged Hongkongers to quickly get vaccinated. She said on her blog that about 500,000 people had received jabs but the city still had a long way to go to reach herd immunity.
She hinted authorities could give fully vaccinated people more leeway on anti-pandemic rules in a bid to boost the inoculation rate. And the government would consider the possibility of further adjusting social-distancing measures if a certain proportion of the population had been vaccinated.
As of Tuesday, about 615,500 doses of vaccines had been administered to residents. Among them, 502,500 people, or 6.7 per cent of the city’s population, received their first dose. Another 113,000 people, or 1.5 per cent of the population, had taken their second jab and were fully vaccinated.
Additional reporting by Danny Mok
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