– In-person classes to be suspended at kindergartens and primary schools from January 14 until end of Lunar New Year holiday
– New HK$4 billion round of pandemic relief funding to be distributed to businesses affected by new social-distancing measures
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– No work-from-home arrangements yet for civil servants to prevent disruption to government services
– Legal action to be taken against Cathay Pacific if airline is found to have exploited loopholes so pilots could return on cargo flights to avoid quarantine
– Two community vaccination centres to be reopened in Kowloon Tong and Western district to handle demand
– Vaccines to be offered at 15 elderly centres operated by Department of Health
– Age threshold for Sinovac vaccine to be lowered to five; jabs to be offered in schools after holiday
A worsening Omicron outbreak has forced Hong Kong’s leader to suspend in-person classes for young pupils and dish out more financial aid to businesses, while Tuen Mun in the western New Territories has been deemed a high-risk area, with residents urged to avoid social activities.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said class suspensions would begin in kindergartens and primary schools on Friday. Secondary schools would continue as normal.
“It was a difficult decision to suspend face-to-face classes, as it will bring consequences,” Lam said on Tuesday. “Education experts and psychologists have said long-term class suspensions will have a huge impact on young children.”
But she said the measure was necessary after three kindergarten pupils, aged three to four, were found to have caught Covid-19 from family members.
She added that the age threshold for receiving the mainland China-made Sinovac vaccine would be lowered from 12 years to five, with the jabs set to be offered in schools after the Lunar New Year holiday, which starts on February 1.
Speaking ahead of her weekly meeting with her de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, Lam also announced a fifth round of pandemic relief funding of HK$4 billion (US$513 million) for businesses affected by recently reimposed social-distancing measures such as bans on local tours, so-called cruises to nowhere and evening dine-in services.
The city’s long-stable pandemic situation has recently been threatened by a spate of Covid-19 cases involving the more transmissive Omicron variant.
Health officials confirmed 21 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, eight of them local. The latest cases brought the city’s infection tally to 12,980, with 213 related deaths. About 20 preliminary-positive cases were also reported.
A dance cluster linked to the mother of an infected female Cathay Pacific flight attendant grew by seven cases while another connected to the Moon Palace restaurant in Kowloon Tong increased by one patient, bringing the totals to 36 and 12 infections respectively.
One of two previously untraceable local cases – seen as evidence by experts of hidden transmission chains in the community – was finally linked to a previous infection.
The patient, a part-time saleswoman at the Sogo department store who tested positive on Monday, was found to have also worked at her father’s pharmacy, which had been visited by an infected male Cathay flight attendant for five minutes on December 27. Genetic sequencing results of her virus sample matched those of the aircrew member.
Her father and two other family members tested positive on Tuesday. A Penny’s Bay quarantine centre security guard, 51, who lives in Tuen Mun also tested preliminary-positive. Officials were investigating whether she caught the virus at the facility or in the community.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, warned there could be silent transmission chains in Tuen Mun.
“In the coming few days, the general public should try to avoid social and unnecessary activities [in Tuen Mun],” she said, adding 10 testing stations would be made available for residents.
The dance cluster, which has branched into several groups including diners at the Six Garden Restaurant in Tin Hau, churchgoing domestic helpers and investment bank Citic Securities, has reached sixth-generation transmission. On Tuesday, a 16-year-old family member of a visitor at Citic Securities was confirmed as infected.
Another two employers linked to the domestic helper group also tested preliminary-positive. One of them worked at Sogo but Chuang said she was unlikely to have been infected there. Both of their domestic helpers were infected in church on January 2.
Lam said inoculation was the way out of the current predicament, adding that the announcement of new rules making day-to-day life more inconvenient for the unvaccinated had boosted the city’s overall rate by 4 per cent in the past two weeks. So far, 74 per cent of eligible Hongkongers have had at least one dose of a vaccine.
With new measures encouraging vaccinations being rolled out, Lam said she expected the overall rate to soon hit 90 per cent if the drive proceeded at the current pace.
In a related development, a new batch of 400,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
The outbreak has morphed into a political scandal after 14 officials and 20 lawmakers were found to have been among some 200 guests who attended the birthday party of a delegate to the national legislature where they were exposed to at least two coronavirus patients.
Lam said the government would take legal action against flagship carrier Cathay Pacific and the Spanish restaurant where the party was held if there was evidence that they had flouted the rules.
Vu Im-fan, a principal and chairwoman of the Subsidised Primary Schools Council, said class suspensions had been expected given that some young pupils were close contacts of confirmed cases.
She added that switching to online classes was a familiar situation at this point in the pandemic, and predicted the impact on teaching and learning would not be so severe this time around, given that Lunar New Year was near.
“It is just two more weeks before the kick-off of the Lunar New Year holiday and this is a period of the transition between two terms … The teaching pace is not that intense,” she said.
Vu said she hoped the government could provide support to lower-income pupils, and allow schools some discretion to let students with poor learning environments at home come to class instead.
Ray Hau Hon-shek, chairman of the North District Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said the suspension was “unavoidable” as health should come first, but acknowledged “there must be some inconvenience for parents”.
Hau called on employers to let parents work from home in light of the coming suspension.
But Ho Wing-shan, who has a son in Primary One, said it would be better for institutions hit with confirmed cases to stop lessons rather than have an all-round suspension, noting that schools had been holding half-day classes only without a lunch hour.
“This is very disruptive to children’s learning and growth. The Christmas holiday is just over, and now comes one-month leave again,” she said. “Zoom cannot replace in-class learning as kids need to interact with each other to grow.”
Additional reporting by Chris Lau, William Yiu and Joyce Ng
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