Hong Kong authorities may restrict the movements of local aircrew who are exempt from quarantine on their return from overseas, after two cargo pilots tested positive for Covid-19 and triggered the isolation of 120 pupils linked to the family of one of them.
The infection of the two pilots, who were among five cases confirmed on Wednesday, sparked fears the city’s negotiations with mainland China on fully reopening the border would be delayed. But the aviation industry also hit back strongly on any potential tightening, with Cathay Pacific warning the move would disrupt the global supply chain.
Local health officials expressed concern about the cases.
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“We are rather worried about the infections of these two aircrew members … as they had high viral load and were highly transmissive,” said Dr Albert Au Ka-wing, principal medical and health officer of the communicable disease branch at the Centre for Health Protection (CHP).
Centre controller Dr Edwin Tsui Lok-kin warned the risk of community spread was “relatively high”.
“We will work with Transport and Housing Bureau colleagues to further review if there is a possibility to consider further restricting the movements of exempted persons, [such as] aircrew, in Hong Kong,” he said, adding authorities would also look into “locations of isolation or quarantine”.
Tsui said the government would try to strike a balance between public health needs and cargo and aviation operations.
He conceded that if Hong Kong were to adopt a total closed-loop system in managing people exempted from quarantine, such as having specific transport to take arrivals back to their isolation place, much effort would be involved. Relevant government departments would need to look into the feasibility of such an approach.
Cathay Pacific said any tightening of cargo aircrew quarantine rules could force it to cut flights, not just harming the airline but also choking the city and affecting global supply chains.
“Tightening the travel restrictions for aircrew operating cargo services would significantly impede our ability to continue to mount these important flights,” an airline spokeswoman said.
Aircrew would need to volunteer for closed-loop operations, flying for three weeks and living in airport hotels throughout, but Cathay already had a shortage of pilots and cabin crew volunteering to fly and spend considerable time in quarantine. Staff have expressed concerns about being separated from families for a long time.
The bureau said it “attaches great importance to the concerned cases and will maintain close communications with the CHP and the airline”.
Earlier in the day, health experts had called for tighter quarantine arrangements for aircrew to close any remaining avenues of coronavirus transmission in Hong Kong.
Respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu slammed the quarantine exemption for aircrew as “highly dangerous”.
“If we don’t plug this loophole, with global passenger and cargo freight services going to fully resume, our community will easily see the emergence of a fifth Covid-19 wave,” he said.
The two pilots, aged 29 and 57, were exempted from quarantine on their return from Frankfurt on Saturday, and were staying at home in Tsim Sha Tsui and Discovery Bay, respectively.
Health officials put their household members and close contacts under quarantine. They include 120 students at Discovery Bay International School, where the 57-year-old’s wife teaches and their two sons attend, and 13 other close contacts of the pilot.
Sixty friends and colleagues of the other pilot have also been quarantined.
Health authorities said the pair were most likely to have been infected in Germany because they repeatedly tested negative before leaving Hong Kong. They also had a high viral load, which suggested their infection was recent, probably in the past week.
“One of the cases told us that during his work in Dubai and Frankfurt, he had face-to-face contact with ground staff in the airport and they did not wear masks, though he himself did. We suspect that either one of them or both had contact with other confirmed cases overseas and acquired the infection,” Au said.
The other cases confirmed locally on Wednesday included a domestic helper from the Philippines and a teenager from Italy, who were both believed to be repositive cases. The remaining case was an aircrew member who arrived from Qatar and was identified during his quarantine hotel stay.
The city’s official tally stood at 12,374 cases, with 213 related deaths.
Under the government’s rules, local crew members operating passenger and cargo flights are subject to different arrangements. Staff serving commercial flights have to stay in quarantine hotels for seven days before re-entering the community, while those on cargo routes are exempt if they are returning from medium and low-risk countries.
Cargo crew members are subject to self-monitoring – including temperature checks – and must take six Covid-19 tests spaced out over 19 days, but are otherwise free to move around the city. They are, however, advised to avoid unnecessary social contact during the monitoring period.
Airlines, meanwhile, must ensure cargo crew are isolated from the local community while overseas, but some contact with others is inevitable, especially in airports and hotels, and on transport.
Crew members who violate company protocol by leaving their hotel rooms during stopovers risk disciplinary action, and probable dismissal.
Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said the pilots’ infections had “raised the alarm”.
As to whether the cases would further delay the full reopening of the border with the mainland – the driving factor behind Hong Kong’s strict zero-Covid strategy – Hui said he believed Beijing would be sensitive to the risks posed by quarantine-exempted groups. He said one possible solution was quarantining aircrew in hotels for one week upon their return from overseas.
“The Delta variant has a shorter incubation period, which lasts around four days. One week means that roughly two incubation periods could be covered,” he said. “That is better than allowing those staff members to return home.”
A one-week quarantine period, he added, would also strike a balance between safety and the manpower needs of airlines.
In a separate development, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung recommended the city follow Israel’s lead and introduce a vaccine passport for entry to public places.
“In Israel, if one does not fulfil the two to three doses of vaccine required, they cannot go to work, school or public places. They must show their vaccine passport. This will make everyone take the jab,” he said.
Meanwhile, the only country deemed “low-risk” for Covid-19 on Hong Kong’s three-tier scale, New Zealand, will lose that designation on November 17 as it pivots to a strategy of living with the virus.
The country will instead be shifted into the medium-risk category, meaning arrivals from there will be subject to longer quarantine requirements in the city.
Additional reporting by Rachel Yeo
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