The biggest travel agent on the India-Hong Kong route has pledged greater oversight and stricter health protection rules in a plan submitted to the local government seeking the resumption of direct flights between the two places, which were banned following a spate of imported coronavirus infections.
GC Nanda & Sons made the submissions to the Security Bureau on Friday as the two-week ban neared its end at midnight on Monday.
Air India has not said if and when its Hong Kong flights would resume following the ban, which went into effect on August 18, but it has stressed its flights followed all strict health protection guidelines laid out by health officials.
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But Poonam Nanda, director of Hong Kong-based travel operator GC Nanda & Sons, said there were valid reasons to question if that was the case.
“The disproportionate number of passengers on Air India’s recent repatriation flight suggests a lack of rigour in strictly applying the necessary protocols to ensure only negative tested passengers are permitted to board,” Nanda said.
Among the key measures proposed by GC Nanda is a pledge to use ISO-certified approved medical centres that have been vetted for reliable results, as well as validating hotel accommodation booked in Hong Kong and organising buses to escort returnees directly to quarantine hotels. It has lined up Singapore Airlines-backed Indian carrier Vistara to conduct flights should it get the go-ahead.
Nanda added: “We have heard that there may be unscrupulous medical providers who have been far too ‘casual’ in the issuance of certificates. This is unacceptable and may have contributed to the rise in cases arriving on Air India flights.”
For now, the Hong Kong government is allowing and advising potentially thousands stranded in India to fly to the city via transit hubs, despite the potential for increased exposure to the virus. Coronavirus-positive cases from India have previously travelled to Hong Kong via stopovers in Singapore, Doha and Kuala Lumpur, according to a Post analysis.
A government spokesman said it had been liaising with the Indian consulate, especially regarding the need to charter special flights where exceptional circumstances warranted.
“In view of the gradual resumption of commercial flights to and from India since August 2020, we will closely monitor the situation and the need for further charter flights in consultation with relevant authorities accordingly.”
At least 21 people who tested positive for coronavirus flew into the city on a single Air India flight on August 14, according to a Post tally of imported cases. Five positive cases also travelled on the carrier on an August 11 flight, and eight more were aboard a flight on August 4.
The initial round of tests for Air India passengers on the August 14 flight revealed 11 passengers were infected, but more cases have emerged in quarantine. As of Saturday, at least 46 imported Indian cases had been detected since public health restrictions on high-risk countries were tightened.
“We would like to reiterate that Air India has always been strictly adhering to all the norms and protocol related to our flight operations and will continue to conform to all the guidelines governing flight operations in future,” an Air India spokesman said.
Since July 25, the Hong Kong government has required travellers from high-risk countries – including India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the United States – to secure a negative Covid-19 test with certification and validation within 72 hours of departure. A hotel reservation for 14 days must also be presented as proof.
Among the requirements is a stipulation that testing must be undertaken at a facility that is “ISO 15189 accredited or is recognised or approved by the relevant authority of the government.” However, Hong Kong relies upon respective governments to determine “approved” testing facilities.
The Department of Health (DoH) – without saying if it would allow Air India’s flights to resume under the same rules, or if tighter measures would be put in place – said it “has been maintaining close liaison with the airlines for the latest requirement”.
Stranded travellers have continued to ask the DoH about the resumption of flights, and as of Friday, health officers had advised stranded passengers to take alternative flights on carriers other than Air India, according to correspondence seen by the Post.
After the notable number of infected passengers on the Hong Kong-bound flights, the Indian government this week said all fliers leaving the country regardless of destination should take a Covid-19 nucleic acid test, the same method used by Hong Kong.
On Friday, the Indian government unveiled its latest list of repatriation flights to bring its citizens home in September and October, but Hong Kong was omitted from the schedule. However, it is understood by Indian government sources that Hong Kong flights would eventually reappear on the schedule.
India may get approval to operate flights on a one-way basis to pick up passengers from Hong Kong, but talks to get approval to carry passengers to the city would be a separate issue.
As of July 31, the Immigration Department said it had contacted about 6,700 Hong Kong residents stranded in India, including 590 HKSAR passport holders. About 3,000 have already returned to the city.
Globally, more than 24.6 million Covid-19 cases have been confirmed. As of Saturday, Hong Kong had recorded 4,786 confirmed cases, with 87 related deaths – many of them occurring during the city’s ongoing third wave of infections.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Ban on Air India flights to Hong Kong ignores imported coronavirus cases travelling to city via connecting flights, analysis shows
- Hong Kong bans Air India from flying to city for two weeks over imported Covid-19 cases