Hong Kong government extends new travel restrictions to aircrew but exemptions still apply

Lilian Cheng

Hong Kong will extend its new travel restrictions to aircrew, the Department of Health says, meaning pilots and flight attendants will have to undergo 14 days of quarantine on arrival from abroad but can fly out earlier as long as their airlines follow set procedures.

However, a flight attendants’ union and crew members warned the coronavirus arrangements risked endangering the safety of passengers and staff as infected personnel would be able to work when they should be isolated.

On-board protections against Covid-19’s spread were also not enough, some members said.

The new procedures for flight crew came to light after the city announced the introduction from Thursday of a red travel alert covering all countries, which imposes quarantine or medical surveillance on all arrivals into Hong Kong, and as a third Cathay Pacific crew member tested positive for the virus.

Crew members have been exempted from quarantine since the city first enforced the mandatory measures on arrivals from mainland China, before extending it to other countries in Asia and more recently in Europe.

Given the latest developments, the spokesman from the Department of Health on Tuesday night confirmed there was a change of policy “taking into consideration public health assessment and normal operation of international traffic”.

Air crew who had travelled to affected areas two weeks before arrival in Hong Kong – irrespective of whether they are city residents – would have to undergo the 14-day quarantine.

But the Department of Health allowed exemptions under certain conditions including if the crew members could self-isolate at accommodation designated by their employers, likely to be their own home or a hotel, and would be subject themselves to medical surveillance over that period.

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The airline should also arrange private transport for the crew to travel to and from the airport.

“They are allowed to operate another trip but are required to inform the Port Health Division before the trip and they are required to wear a surgical mask during work,” said the spokesman.

The procedures also state aircrew must pay attention to their health, and take their body temperature twice daily. If they feel unwell, they must call a department hotline.

According to an internal Cathay Pacific memo for Hong Kong base crew, they are required to self-isolate at home for 14 days, but are permitted to work during the self-isolation period, while the company will provide separate transport to the employee’s home. For overseas crew, they have to stay in the Headland hotel next to Cathay City.

Catherine Hui, a flight attendant of Cathay Pacific, said she was surprised by the new policy exemptions because it amounted to “putting crew members and passengers at health risk”.

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“It means while we are under isolation, we still have to go to work if the company calls us,” the 27-year-old crew member said.

“Flights these days from Europe and the United States were so full that we might be virus-carriers, and we might spread the virus to the next flight as some of the infected cases might not have symptoms in the first few days.”

She added some crew members had already refused to work, and requested sick leave.

Erica Chan, vice-chairman of the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union, said she also had concerns about the arrangements rolled out by officials and the company.

“It seems that the policy was not protecting the health of the crew,” she said. “The best thing to do is to let employees rest for two weeks before the next flight, and we have been asking the company to provide enough protection gear for the crew members, as lots of them are worried and have been working under great pressure.”

But health experts believed the exemptions were still acceptable, because it offered flexibility to some overseas crew, while preventing virus transmission from the crew to the community.

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“It might be unrealistic to keep some crew [based overseas] in 14 days of quarantine,” said Dr Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the advisory committee on communicable diseases at the Hong Kong Medical Association.

“It has to be the airline that protects their employees from getting infected by giving enough protection gear to them on flight, and to arrange a schedule for them so that they do not have to work in between the 14 days.”

Chinese University respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said he believed the policy change was to avoid community transmission by crew members who might have the possibility of infection. He added that allowing them to work on board would not undermine the safety of the public.

The Post has approached Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon and Hong Kong Airlines for comment.

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