The global trade body for airlines has urged Hong Kong and other places with strict quarantine rules to ensure that travellers flying in from high-risk countries are tested for Covid-19 first before boarding flights to avoid the influx of imported cases that the city is currently facing.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reiterated its criticism of mandatory quarantining for arrivals, suggesting high-risk travellers should instead be screened at the source before allowing them in, as Hong Kong confirmed 14 more imported cases on Thursday.
They were identified as nine men and five women – 12 from Pakistan, one from India and one from the Philippines – taking the city’s total to 1,193.
Health authorities also reported on Thursday the death of a 55-year-old stroke patient, who was flown back from the Philippines via air ambulance on Tuesday and tested positive for Covid-19. He was the city’s third coronavirus fatality in a week and the seventh in total.
While Hong Kong has not recorded a local transmitted case for 12 straight days, it has been facing a surge of imported infections, primarily among residents returning from Pakistan.
On Wednesday, health authorities sent 10 would-be transit passengers who had been stranded at the airport for five days to a government quarantine facility after realising they had arrived on the same Saturday flight as 26 others previously found to be infected.
There was one more traveller in the transit group who agreed to be flown back to Dubai. Among the 10 who were quarantined, one showed symptoms on Thursday night and was sent to Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital.
Hong Kong International Airport currently has a ban in place on transit flights to cities in mainland China, where the 11 passengers were headed. A source told the Post that a breakdown in communication had resulted in the delayed response to their situation.
The 26 imported cases who shared the Emirates Airlines flight with the stranded travellers were Hong Kong residents returning from Pakistan.
“If testing could have been done prior to departure, those passengers would have been picked out and wouldn’t have flown,” IATA assistant director of external affairs James Wiltshire said at a weekly news briefing. “That’s where the testing for higher-risk countries within 24 hours in the community and not at the airport would help, especially in the Emirates case.”
IATA also took the opportunity to ramp up its objections to mandatory quarantine, which it equated to an unnecessary “full travel ban”.
“We understand you don’t want to reimport Covid-19, and that you want to control travellers potentially being infected,” director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said.
“For that, the key, probably, the solution, is testing. Secondly, if you implement the multilayered approach recommended by worldwide guidelines … it should significantly reduce the risk of transmission on board from country A to country B.”
The guidelines he was referring to were unveiled by the UN aviation agency at the beginning of this month. They are a detailed series of health recommendations designed to limit contact between passengers, airport staff and cabin crew, and would affect every stage of the air travel process.
The Hong Kong government’s strict measures to keep a lid on infections in the city have been largely successful, but they have been a source of frustration to IATA and the aviation industry’s wider push to reopen borders.
The core issue is whether pretesting is a viable alternative to quarantining people on arrival.
Also on Thursday, a source told the Post that micro-cracks found in toilet sewage pipes could be a reason why nine tenants at Lek Yuen public housing estate in Sha Tin were infected earlier this month.
The source, privy to the results of a joint investigation by the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said they had also found that a sewage pipe had been repaired in a ninth-floor flat, which was probably why tenants of that particular unit avoided infection.
To date, 9.36 million Covid-19 infections have been reported globally, of which 480,000 have proved fatal.
Hardest hit is the United States, which alone has recorded more than 2.4 million infections and 124,000 deaths. America’s three most populous states have reported new highs in daily cases, prompting New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to impose quarantine orders on travellers coming in from eight other states.
The European Union said it was considering shutting out American arrivals, while countries such as Australia have also warned that borders would not reopen until next year. China remains sealed off to visitors as well.
Reopening borders is a thorny issue for countries that are managing to bring the pandemic under control but remain wary of a relapse as the global crisis continues to take its toll.
IATA on Thursday offered a two-step approach to scrapping quarantine requirements for arriving passengers.
The first step focuses on discouraging symptomatic people from travelling and giving them the flexibility to rebook flights to ensure they are not pressured into taking off.
The second step calls for tougher enforcement of preflight health declarations and making testing a prerequisite, particularly for high-risk countries.
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