At least 14 hotels have offered a minimum of 1,000 rooms for travellers arriving in Hong Kong to stay in during mandatory quarantine, an industry representative said, as medical experts called on the government to stop the coronavirus spreading in the community by barring people from isolating at home.
This came as the city confirmed 16 new cases on Thursday, taking the total to 208, including four deaths.
Travellers to the city had rushed to immigration checkpoints before midnight on Wednesday, after which all passengers from overseas would be put under mandatory home-quarantine. They would have to wear an electronic wristband which would alert the authorities should they leave home within the 14-day quarantine period.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said officials would start randomly testing incoming travellers – even those without symptoms – for the virus, which causes the deadly illness Covid-19 and has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide.
Medical experts have called on the government to adopt more drastic measures, such as putting quarantined people into hotels and even barring all foreign arrivals from the city.
Yiu Si-wing, who represents the tourism industry in the legislature, said 14 hotels had informed him they were willing to offer at least 1,000 rooms in total for the quarantine arrangement, mostly smaller two- or three-star properties.
He suggested the government should support the initiative by offering a guarantee that 70 per cent of the hotels’ rooms would be occupied. If the occupancy rate was lower than that, the government should pay a certain amount to cover it, he said.
“The arrangement is rather simple, as hotel staff only need to place food and utilities outside the room doors,” he said, adding that the government should liaise with the hotels, clear all rooms, standardise the arrangements and consider sending the Civil Aid Service to help.
He said travellers would need to pay for the accommodation, but most of the hotels which volunteered would only charge HK$200 to HK$300 a night.
L’hotel Island in Aberdeen had since January offered about one-third of its 432 rooms for those who undergoing voluntary and compulsory quarantine and had taken 300 bookings, general manager Winnie Woo Wing-yi said.
She said there had been 30 to 40 inquiries each day this year for rooms from people who were returning from overseas and faced a 14-day compulsory quarantine.
“Other than students who just came back from abroad as our guests, we have some parents who prefer staying with the hotel and letting their returning kids stay at home for their mandatory quarantine,” she said.
As of Thursday, 60 rooms had been taken by people quarantining themselves but the hotel’s 170 staff would not come into close contact with them, she added.
Woo declined to reveal the room rate, but its website had prices of about HK$450 per night.
Dr Leung Chi-chiu, of the Medical Council, said the home-quarantine arrangement was “absolutely not ideal” considering the outbreaks in Europe and America.
“As many are students studying abroad … if they return home for quarantine, there are risks of affecting elders at home who are more vulnerable to the virus,” he said, adding that the elderly might then carry the contagion to the community.
He said it would be better for travellers to stay in hotels, calling on the government to liaise with the industry, which had been badly hit by the city’s recent tourism woes.
In the airport arrivals hall, one resident, who declined to be named, landed on a flight earlier than the scheduled 11.50pm on Wednesday. “I needed to run to the [identity-check] gates – not exaggerating. I was worrying that I would be isolated if I made it after 12am,” he said.
The man said he would still stay at home and would not return to work, as he was not sure whether he would show symptoms.
Another Hongkonger, surnamed Tsang, who considered herself lucky to have beaten the cut-off for mandatory quarantine, said she would stay indoors for a week after returning from Kuala Lumpur.
“Being able to skip the [mandatory quarantine] was good but I will still stay at home just in case I have problems … it would be very selfish if I went out,” she said.
But one traveller, who flew in from Melbourne, was disappointed to have missed the midnight deadline after arranging an earlier flight than planned to skip the 14-day quarantine. In the end, he said he landed at 3am after the flight was delayed by six hours.
On Thursday morning, almost all travellers were wearing masks, some even donning raincoats and eye shields. The arrangements for filling in health declaration forms, putting on monitoring bracelets and undergoing immigration checks were generally smooth, according to some travellers, who said the whole process took about 15 minutes.
The new model of bracelet contains a QR code that pairs up with a smartphone app, which uses the strength of surrounding communication signals to determine whether the quarantined person has left the prescribed location – without capturing the wearer’s precise location.
Meanwhile in nearby Macau, the government started using a third hotel to quarantine new arrivals. Regency Art Hotel Macau, in Taipa, was expected to provide 326 rooms for the operation.
The city’s tourism office said that, because it views quarantining people in hotels as safer than using their homes, it would continue to do so despite the difficulty in convincing operators to take part.
Since late January, authorities in the casino hub have used a four-star hotel to quarantine tourists from Wuhan, in mainland China’s Hubei province, where the viral outbreak was first reported. Due to an overwhelming number of Macau residents returning home since then, a second hotel, with 300 rooms, was brought in on Tuesday.
Separately, the Hong Kong government announced that a flexibility arrangement on extending the expiring contracts of domestic helpers, first introduced in February, would continue. All contracts that expire on or before June 30 can be extended to July 31.
A government spokesman said the aim was to help employers whose helpers’ contracts were set to expire, but whose newly hired workers could not fly in because of travel restrictions.
He also reminded employers that newly arrived helpers should stay at home at all times to fulfil the compulsory quarantine requirement, and if they wished to arrange for the employees to stay elsewhere, prior arrangements should be made with their agents.
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