Concerns have been raised over the handling of more than a dozen transit passengers stranded at Hong Kong’s airport amid Covid-19 travel restrictions, with no resolution in sight.
Health experts criticised the lack of testing or quarantine arrangement for the group, some of whom were stuck at the airport for months, as “not ideal”.
The comments came as the city recorded four more imported infections on Monday, despite a 16-day run of no local cases.
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The city, which now has 1,023 confirmed infections, is facing a surge in imported cases, with more than 70 from overseas arrivals in the past week.
Public health fears emerged after 11 transit passengers, who shared the same flight with 26 others previously found to be infected with Covid-19, were revealed last week to have been stranded at the airport for five days. They were not able to take a connecting flight to mainland China after arriving in the city from Dubai on an Emirates flight on June 20.
Six more similar cases were revealed over the weekend, including a woman who had been stuck at the airport for about two weeks after arriving from Britain on a British Airways flight, hoping to continue on to the mainland.
Another case involved a Cathay Pacific passenger who came from Canada in late March but failed to take a connecting flight to Vietnam.
All the stranded passengers tested negative for the virus, but were only checked after growing public concern.
While Hong Kong resumed transit flight services on June 1, the mainland has remained off-limits for transfers.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung criticised the lack of medical checks for transit passengers who could not immediately fly out.
“There are no quarantine arrangements and rapid testing [for these passengers], this is extremely not ideal,” Ho told a radio programme on Monday. “If a traveller had been infected and developed symptoms while stranded ... this could pose a big risk.”
Dr Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, also agreed that it was highly unfavourable to have “so many” passengers stranded at the airport, as there might be transmission of the virus if the travellers were from high-risk areas.
“The Airport Authority should inform health authorities right away so that tests and expatriation can be carried out as soon as possible,” Leung said.
Among the 11 transit passengers who arrived from Dubai, 10 were sent to a government quarantine facility on Wednesday and would end their isolation this Saturday. The remaining person had already boarded a flight back to Dubai.
The Post learned that various government departments were still discussing where to send the group after their quarantine. Without any valid travel visas, they were most likely to be sent back to either Dubai or mainland China.
The Immigration Department declined to comment on whether the stranded passengers had permits. It was understood that health authorities took the lead in allowing the 10 passengers – who are still under the status of “denied landing” – to enter the city’s quarantine camp due to medical risks.
Both the department and the Food and Health Bureau also did not clarify the visa type or permission granted for the group to continue staying in the city.
A bureau spokeswoman said the passengers who arrived from Dubai were sent for mandatory quarantine as they were deemed close contacts of patients, but such measures were not applied to other stranded transit passengers.
Meanwhile, the Airport Authority said it was the responsibility of airlines to ensure that those transiting via Hong Kong would gain entry at their final destinations.
The authority said they were taking the incidents very seriously and liaising with relevant government departments.
Both the authority and the Civil Aviation Department did not respond to queries on how airlines would be penalised over the matter.
Emirates has pledged to take measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again, while British Airways is still investigating why the woman was allowed to board despite transit restrictions in Hong Kong.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said the blame was on airlines for their oversight on immigration policies of different jurisdictions.
“You cannot blame Hong Kong, which was actually stuck in the middle,” To said. “We can only allow these passengers to wait based on humanitarian grounds.”
For those under quarantine, he said it was possible they would be allowed to stay in Hong Kong at the discretion of authorities, until the mainland government allowed their return.