Air India has been banned from operating flights to Hong Kong for the fourth time since mid-August, after five passengers from Mumbai tested positive for the coronavirus this week.
The city recorded two new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, with the health minister defending the government’s easing of social-distancing rules described by some as being inconsistent.
It was the third straight day of no locally infected cases for Hong Kong.
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Both infections on Wednesday were imported, involving a foreign domestic helper from Indonesia and an arrival from India, the Centre for Health Protection said.
The person from India was among five who boarded an Air India flight from Mumbai on Monday. The other four were confirmed to be Covid-19 patients on Tuesday.
The Department of Health said Air India flights from Mumbai were banned from Wednesday until November 10.
It was the fourth time India’s national carrier was stopped from operating flights to Hong Kong. The previous ban, imposed on the airline’s flights from Delhi on October 17, will be in effect until this Friday.
India has so far recorded nearly 8 million Covid-19 cases, the second most in the world. The country is still seeing five-digit increases in daily cases, and is on Hong Kong’s high-risk list.
Travellers from India headed to Hong Kong must present a negative Covid-19 test result before flying, and undergo mandatory quarantine in a hotel upon arrival.
City authorities will ban a route for 14 days if at least five passengers on a single flight are identified as infected on arrival, or if three or more passengers are found to have contracted the coronavirus over two consecutive flights from a location.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a specialist in infectious disease, said the government should impose more stringent rules on airlines repeatedly bringing in passengers with Covid-19.
“If they had similar incidents consecutively for a certain number [of days], all flights from the country should be banned for a month,” Tsang said. “The government now is not tough enough.”
Hong Kong’s official Covid-19 tally stands at 5,310, with 105 related deaths. There have been just five local cases of transmission in the past week.
Meanwhile, a two-week trial of RT-LAMP tests, a faster method of coronavirus screening, began at Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday.
The health department said that all arrivals would continue to be required to submit their deep-throat saliva samples for the standard PCR test, while those volunteering to trial the rapid version must provide another sample through a mouth rinse.
The Food and Health Bureau said Prenetics, a Hong Kong-based biotechnology firm, was involved in the trial of the rapid test.
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee made her comments a day after the government said the cap on restaurant diners and pubgoers, respectively, would be relaxed from four to six, and two to four, from Friday onwards.
But the limit on gathering in public remains at four until at least next Thursday, a move criticised by health experts, who said it was riskier when people ate together without masks, compared with wearing them when congregating in public.
“I disagree there’s inconsistency in our decision making,” Chan said on a radio show. “We have different considerations, we cannot relax all measures at the same time, we have to do it gradually.
“If it is just lining up outside the restaurants with more than four people together, I believe law enforcement officers would be reasonable.”
She said the government had been looking at the whole picture and would consider a further relaxation of the rules if the situation remained stable.
On the same show, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said he had reservations about easing the rules, but believed there were economic considerations involved.
Ho suggested the government carried out more inspections, including checking that restaurants were following the guidelines.
“They can do random checking at 100 restaurants, for example, and see if operators follow guidelines, such as whether partition heights are above the eye line of diners, and that these surround diners in the front, left and right,” he said.
“Currently, the government is just basing its social-distancing decisions on the number of local confirmed cases.”
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