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Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday vowed to do everything possible to convince mainland China that the city’s Covid-19 control measures would not create a gap in the community’s defences, as pandemic role model Macau ramped up its fight against a growing coronavirus cluster.
Authorities in Macau, touted just last month by mainland officials as a model for Hong Kong to follow on epidemic control measures, announced on Tuesday that a cluster involving renovation workers had grown to four cases but said it was linked to infections among security guards at designated quarantine hotels late last month.
While Hong Kong has not recorded a single local case with unknown sources since mid-August, no significant progress has been made on quarantine-free travel between the city and the mainland. That prompted Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to pledge that her administration would do everything it could to adjust anti-pandemic policies to address mainland concerns in a bid to get the border fully reopened soon.
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“For the sake of reopening the border, the city government is willing and determined to improve anything located by our mainland counterparts to make our measures more in line with their standards, or to convince them our anti-epidemic mechanism will not [create] a gap,” Lam said ahead of her weekly meeting with her advisers in the Executive Council.
Her administration was waiting for feedback from mainland experts and would decide the next steps after an internal assessment, she added.
Lam reiterated that reopening the border with the mainland, rather than with other countries, was the city’s top priority.
“We have already made it very clear our focus is on [reopening] with the mainland as Hongkongers have a stronger need to cross the border, be it from an economic or livelihood perspective,” she said.
The mainland side has been cautious so far about any opening up, concerned in particular about the city’s border-control measures and continued reporting of imported cases.
“International tourism, as well as international business activities, of course matter to us, but that is not comparable with the mainland … Many foreign corporations which have set up a branch in Hong Kong also run businesses on the mainland. So being able to cross the border to inspect their businesses or deliberate with their investors also matters a lot to them,” Lam said.
Lam also brushed aside recent comments by the European Chamber of Commerce, which urged the city to relax its strict quarantine requirements. She said Hong Kong could not “live with the virus” – as some countries had done – if it wanted to reopen the border with the mainland.
Macau, meanwhile, was striving to keep its outbreak under control after a 42-year-old Vietnamese woman was confirmed as the fourth case in the latest cluster.
The woman had helped to renovate a flat with three previously confirmed patients, health officials said.
One of the patients and most of those in last month’s security guard cluster were found to be carrying the Delta variant. The genetic sequences of their viral samples were identical.
Leong Iek-hou, coordinator of Macau’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the findings suggested the infection source was the same for the two groups.
Two patients from the clusters were also found to have taken the same bus on September 24, spending 14 minutes in the vehicle together. Leong said they had stood next to each other and had touched the same pole on the bus, pointing to a possible transmission risk.
In the latest moves to contain the outbreak, the Macau government told civil servants to stay away from the office from Tuesday to Thursday.
“Those who are exempted from work, except for urgent or necessary situations, must stay at home and avoid going out,” a Public Administration and Civil Service Bureau statement said.
Officials ordered various venues, including cinemas, theatres, beauty parlours and fitness centres, to close from Wednesday to curb the spread of the virus.
Quarantine-free border-crossing arrangements between Macau and the neighbouring mainland city of Zhuhai have been suspended since September 26, after two guards working at a quarantine hotel tested positive. The border was originally scheduled to reopen on September 29, but that was pushed back to October 1, only to be postponed again.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu said Macau had seen an outbreak because of the Delta variant’s quick transmission rate, which even the strictest control measures might fail to stop.
“One possibility is there isn’t enough training for people like cleaning staff working in high-risk places like quarantine hotels and they are not thorough enough,” he said.
Leung said Hong Kong would need a contingency plan in the event it ever saw a broad outbreak of the Delta variant.
“We have been safe for too long so we don’t have a contingency plan, but if we are not prepared then there will be no hope of resuming cross-border travel,” he said.
In Hong Kong, seven new imported Covid-19 cases were confirmed on Tuesday. They involved three foreign domestic helpers who had arrived from the Philippines, and travellers from Pakistan, India, Kenya and Egypt. Fewer than five people tested preliminary-positive.
The city’s tally of confirmed infections rose to 12,237, with 213 related deaths.
The Centre for Health Protection on Tuesday evening said it was investigating a preliminary imported case in which a 43-year-old domestic helper tested positive on October 4 – a month after she arrived from Indonesia and more than a week after she completed quarantine.
She initially tested negative five times while in isolation at the Silka Tsuen Wan hotel, and then returned to her employer’s home in Heng Fa Chuen Block 37 on September 25 after completing quarantine.
She was tested again on Sunday but the result was inconclusive. She tested positive on Monday.
A source said she had a low viral load.
The centre said: “The patient showed no symptoms and had received Sinovac Covid-19 jabs on July 19 and August 18. Initial investigations showed she had been to Victoria Park on October 1 and 3. More tracings are ongoing.”
A compulsory testing order was imposed on her residential block and other places she had visited.
Additional reporting by Zoe Low
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