Hong Kong should review its policy of allowing unrestricted sea crew changes at the city’s port amid a sustained third wave of Covid-19 infections, health experts said on Friday, as four more imported cases involving seafarers were recorded.
Concerns over the possible threat posed by vessels continued as more than 100 maritime workers were revealed on Thursday to have been quarantined aboard six cargo ships in Hong Kong waters, after a half dozen seamen tested positive for the coronavirus.
A source familiar with the situation said the sailors in quarantine were calm and the environment on the vessels was not bad.
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Among the 123 new Covid-19 infections on Friday, eight were imported cases, including three seafarers who arrived from the Philippines and one from India.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government adviser on the pandemic, said Hong Kong should suspend opening its port for sea crew change for three weeks in view of the worsening situation.
“If a group of people has come in [from other places], but quarantine is not imposed on them … this will only lead to sustained entry of the virus to the community,” Hui said.
We are already seeing new cases in the triple figures [daily]. If we further allow potential risks to come in without putting them into quarantine, the risk will be higher
Professor David Hui
“We are already seeing new cases in the triple figures [daily]. If we further allow potential risks to come in without putting them into quarantine, the risk will be higher.”
Top University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said the government should scrap its quarantine exemption measures for sea crew members.
Allowing incoming seamen to leave before they had their virus test results without imposing mandatory quarantine was equivalent to a “doorless chicken coop”, he said.
“This has happened repeatedly and we are really worried about it,” Ho told a morning radio programme on Friday.
Several health experts have said the ongoing third wave of infections, which has brought the city’s tally to 2,372, was partly caused by incoming travellers who were exempt from virus tests and mandatory quarantine. Hong Kong authorities have said that aircrew and sea crew have accounted for most of the exemptions.
Research done by HKU has also found that viral genetic sequences in some cases emerging in the current wave were different from those in the previous months, suggesting the current infections came from imported cases.
Experts also believed that the decision to – as of June 8 – allow unrestricted sea crew change in Hong Kong waters, including those without cargo operations in the city, has acted as a beacon. According to the Marine Department, about 10,000 sea crew members had so far been granted quarantine exemption.
Tighter entry requirements have been imposed on crew members of planes and ocean-going vessels since July 8. Sea crew members, for instance, must now present negative Covid-19 virus tests before boarding flights to Hong Kong.
Both they and aircrew workers also need to be tested for the virus when arriving in the city by air. But unlike other travellers, they do not need to wait for their test results at designated facilities.
That policy appeared to be more lax when compared to Singapore, which also allowed sea crew change but with more restrictions. For example, crew flying into Singapore to start their work on a ship must have served a 14-day home quarantine before arriving in the city state.
Workers are also required to stay in one of two designated holding facilities for a maximum of 48 hours before boarding the vessel if they are not allowed to do so right after landing. Those finishing their duties and leaving their ships must have a valid boarding pass for a flight out of the country.
The Hong Kong Shipowners Association and the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association on Thursday said that in view of the “fast-changing Covid-19 situation”, they had asked their member companies to postpone or reschedule their crew changes for at least three weeks, unless those operations were “absolutely necessary for ship safety or on compassionate grounds”.
Roberto Giannetta, chairman of the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association, said he hoped during those three weeks’ time, the local infection rates would come down and crew change could be resumed.
He warned that suspending crew change for a longer period of time could have a major impact.
“If Hong Kong were to no longer allow crew change to take place, this would have an effect on Hong Kong’s ability to access world goods, such as food and medical supplies, and would have an impact on global trade,” he said in a reply to the Post.
He added that keeping sea crew aboard their vessels for too long would affect their mental and emotional health negatively.
The Transport and Housing Bureau did not reply to a Post inquiry as to whether it would suspend unrestricted sea crew change. Neither transport officials nor the Food and Health Bureau replied about the possibility of tighter quarantine restrictions before publication.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong third wave: two areas in east Kowloon emerging as new Covid-19 clusters, Post finds, while government ‘mulls partial lockdown’
- Hong Kong third wave: fresh record set with 118 Covid-19 cases as city confronts risk from infected crew aboard cargo ships
- Hong Kong third wave: coronavirus cases could peak in two weeks with spread waning in good sign for city, expert says