Hong Kong’s goal of “zero local infections” was finally within reach after a months-long fight against a resurgent coronavirus, the city’s leader said on Tuesday, as just one imported case was confirmed.
With the exception of a Saturday case still being investigated, the city had now gone 24 days without an untraceable local infection, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said, ahead of the latest caseload being announced.
The positive test of a four-year-old boy on the weekend prompted quarantine orders for more than 20 children, staff and family members connected to a local kindergarten. But health authorities are now re-examining the source of infection and whether the test was actually a false positive.
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“There have been rebounds in the number of cases in the cities around us, but with the cooperation and efforts of Hong Kong residents, we have been able to keep the city safe. At this stage, I can say that we may be able to reach ‘zero infections’ in the city,” she said before her weekly Executive Council meeting.
Meanwhile, the government’s adviser on the pandemic David Hui Shu-cheong, of Chinese University, said the four-year-old boy tested negative for Covid-19 and for antibodies against the virus after being admitted to hospital.
The boy will be tested again for antibodies on Thursday. If the test returned a negative result again, then his earlier positive test could be removed from the official tally of cases, he added.
Apart from the boy, the last untraceable local infection was recorded on April 23, as a confirmed case involving a staff member of testing firm BGI had later been removed from the city’s tally after investigations showed the sample was polluted.
Hong Kong confirmed just one new imported infection on Tuesday, a 42-year-old seaman from India, pushing the city’s official tally to 11,826 cases, with 210 related deaths. Fewer than five preliminary-positive cases were also reported.
“I realise it’s important to resume normal activities, to have some travel with the mainland and overseas places, but nothing is more important than keeping the city safe … We won’t sacrifice that very important mission just because we want to rush to resume travel,” Lam said.
That “highly responsible attitude”, she added, had been displayed via this week’s second postponement of a travel bubble with Singapore.
Lam established the target of zero local infections – a point at which the city has gone 14 days without an untraceable case – last November during her annual policy address, calling it an important criterion to reopening the border with the mainland.
Since then, the government has imposed stringent social-distancing measures and launched its citywide vaccination programme. Local infection rates began to stabilise in April, with only sporadic unknown cases.
“Hong Kong still has good conditions for discussing reopening the mainland border, particularly for people coming from the mainland [to the city], as the situation in both areas has been stabilised,” she said, confirming a plan to allow mainland arrivals without quarantine or mandatory vaccinations would go ahead as scheduled.
In the long run, there is only one way which will work, and that is to get vaccinated
Dr Ho Pak-leung, microbiologist, University of Hong Kong
That arrangement is not reciprocal, with those travelling from Hong Kong still subject to the mainland’s quarantine policies.
Given the severity of the pandemic situation in other jurisdictions, Lam said the government had been imposing “most stringent measures” from Friday onwards to prevent imported cases.
Under the shift, Singapore will be added to a list of six other countries – including Japan, Malaysia, Argentina, Italy, Kenya and the Netherlands – from where unvaccinated Hong Kong residents would have to serve 21 days of quarantine at designated hotels upon arrival. Non-residents are banned from entering the city.
Earlier on Sunday, the government also stepped up restrictions for arrivals from Taiwan.
All arrivals from these countries will also have to present proof of a negative coronavirus test conducted within 72 hours before boarding their flights.
The government further tightened rules for Taiwanese arrivals, requiring anyone who entered the city on or before May 15 and currently serving home quarantine to move to designated hotels to finish their isolation. The rule also applies to arrivals from Singapore.
Meanwhile, unvaccinated arrivals from both places who are required to undergo mandatory testing on their 16th and 19th days will not be allowed to leave their homes or designated accommodation until they receive a negative test result.
Vaccinated arrivals, who must quarantine for seven days and take a mandatory test on the 12th day, must also stay home until they receive a negative test result.
Both groups must take a taxi directly from their quarantine hotels to their next accommodation.
Lam reiterated that vaccination was the most effective means to prevent transmission, suggesting residents had so far received a total of more than 2 million doses, with 1.18 million people taking at least one jab. She said medical teams had also begun to provide vaccination outreach services to interested companies.
In a separate statement, the government said more than 170 employees of Deloitte, an accounting firm, had received vaccination through the outreach services. Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen was present at the venue to inspect the procedures.
The Civil Service Bureau, which is in charge of the city’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, said the outreach service would be offered to various sectors and businesses as a convenient way for people to receive the jabs. Services will be operated by the medical institutions already running the city’s network of community vaccination centres.
Speaking on a Tuesday radio programme, Dr Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist from the University of Hong Kong, said the recent surge in Covid-19 cases in Singapore was a telling example that putting on masks and social distancing would only work in the short term.
“In the long run, there is only one way which will work, and that is to get vaccinated. Is there a plan B? I don’t think there is a plan B,” he said.
Ho said it took just two weeks for a well-contained situation in Singapore to snowball into more than a dozen clusters, especially when some of the cases ravaging the city state belonged to a mutant strain.
He said the inoculation rate in Hong Kong, which stands at about 15 per cent of the city’s 7.5 million population, remained low compared with several cities on the mainland such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, where vaccination rates ranged between 40 and 70 per cent.
Additional reporting by Chris Lau
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