A foreign cargo pilot awaiting Covid-19 test results visited Hong Kong’s famed tourist spot The Peak despite a pledge by the airline industry that crews would self-quarantine in hotels, highlighting a weakness in the government’s efforts to contain the worsening coronavirus crisis.
The incident emerged on Sunday just hours after the government announced it would tighten anti-coronavirus measures for aircrew and seafarers, who are exempted from having to quarantine.
Among the changes, which only take effect from Wednesday, aircrew must obtain negative Covid-19 results before they board flights to Hong Kong. Failure to do so will mean the need to take a Covid-19 test upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport and having to wait for the results.
Also, they must not take public transport during their stay.
Monday saw a record 145 new Covid-19 cases, the sixth straight day with more than 100 new infections, taking the total to 2,778.
The government has granted visiting aircrew an exemption from the 14-day quarantine period, a move public health experts said was unwise. Some said the new measures came too late as exempted aircrew and seamen may have been a possible source of the recent spike in cases.
At the centre of the incident is a pilot working for Southern Air, a contractor for DHL and a subsidiary of Atlas Air Worldwide. The pilot, who has been asked for comment, told a visitor on the Peak Tram that he flew for DHL.
The visitor, who later recounted his conversation, said the pilot, who was wearing a mask, was from the United States. He arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday via South Korea and was leaving on Monday.
The pilot also told the visitor he was waiting for the result of his Covid-19 test.
An Atlas Air spokeswoman said its crew members were expected to fully comply with regulations. Spokeswoman Meghan Glynn added: “Any allegation of non-compliant behaviour is taken very seriously and acted upon, as appropriate.”
DHL was also asked for comment.
May Tsang, general manager of The Peak Complex, which operates the tram, said the situation was worrying.
“While we understand exemptions are necessary in certain cases, we hope individuals will be responsible and follow the government’s guidelines on social distancing, including self-quarantining until the result of their test is known,” she said.
The company said its trams were disinfected after each trip. Staff and passengers were required to wear masks and had their temperature taken.
It said it had no plans to start checking customers for Hong Kong identity cards to spot exempted persons.
On July 20, an influential group representing more than 70 local and foreign airlines flying out of Hong Kong International Airport committed to tough self-policing for foreign aircrew to help combat the virus in the city.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Hong Kong said its members agreed that non-city-based pilots and flight attendants would “remain in designated hotels only and practice social-distancing measures during their stay in Hong Kong.” The body was contacted for comment.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a Chinese University respiratory medicine expert, said the pilot’s movements were an example of a potential route for the virus to spread. He called for exempted aircrew to be tagged with electronic bracelets.
Hui said it was not good to see those with an unclear infection status being free to move around the community. “I don’t know if he had a negative test before coming to Hong Kong but if we don’t have any information he should wait for the result before going into the community.”
A 52-year-old FedEx pilot who arrived from the United States on July 10 was found to have Covid-19 after airport testing, but not before taking a stroll through Tsim Sha Tsui and having a meal at a branch of famed eatery Din Tai Fung. The pilot was discharged from hospital on July 21 before returning to America.
Since July 8, both aircrew and seafarers have been required to submit mandatory Covid-19 tests upon arrival in Hong Kong. But unlike passengers, aircrew did not have to wait for test results.
About 50 Covid-19 cases have been detected among seamen and aircrew.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said there had been concerns all along about exceptions for aircrew and shippers coming to Hong Kong.
“To our surprise the government even exempted them from doing virus testing,” he said.
“This was beyond our expectations. I don’t think there was anywhere else around Asia offering such generous exemptions.
“That is why we ended up with the tragedy we are facing now. The magnitude and degree of exemptions are so unwise.”
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