Travellers to Hong Kong from mainland China will risk jail if they breach mandatory quarantine rules introduced at midnight in the only significant measure announced by the government on Friday as it battles to contain the spread of a deadly coronavirus.
Those not showing any symptoms will be required to spend 14 days at their home, with friends or family, or at hotels they have booked. Travellers with nowhere to stay in the city will be sent to designated quarantine facilities.
Anyone breaching the restrictions will face a jail term of up to six months, a fine of up to HK$25,000 (US$3,200) or both, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said at a news conference.
But Cheung deflected queries about details of the new quarantine camps and officials faced a barrage of questions about the ability of the authorities to ensure people quarantined complied with the restrictions.
As officials kept mum about whether there were adequate facilities, sources told the Post the government was considering building quarantine facilities on vacant land near Disneyland, including a 60-hectare site reserved for the park’s expansion.
Housing minister Frank Chan Fan proposed last month that the site be used for flats to help meet a housing shortage.
Tens of thousands hurried to cross the border into Hong Kong yesterday ahead of the new measures being introduced. Long queues appeared at the transport interchange at Shenzhen Bay Port.
The government revealed there had been a surge in arrivals from mainland China since Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on Wednesday that the measures would be introduced. The following day 145,141 people crossed the border, a 31 per cent increase from the day before. The total number of arrivals to the city increased by 40 per cent.
On Friday, Hong Kong reported its 25th and 26th cases of coronavirus infection. One of the new patients was a 58-year-old man who lived in Zhuhai and Hong Kong. He developed a fever and cough and returned to Hong Kong on February 5 and was reported to be in stable condition.
In the 26th case, a 42-year-old man who lives in The Palazzo, Fo Tan, had been healthy until he developed a fever and cough on Monday and went to the Prince of Wales Hospital, where he was admitted for isolation. He was in stable condition.
He went to Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport on January 22 for a flight to Hebei province before the onset of symptoms and returned from Hebei to Guangzhou on January 26, then visited Macau on the same day.
He returned to Hong Kong by ferry on Sunday.
His domestic helper who also showed symptoms was sent to the hospital and quarantine would be arranged for a friend who lived with him.
A taxi driver who drove the patient from The Palazzo to hospital at around 2pm on February 6 was urged to call the centre’s hotline.
The Hospital Authority said three of the patients were in critical condition. One patient, a 39-year-old, died on Tuesday.
As of Friday, the mainland had reported more than 31,000 cases and 636 fatalities.
As Hong Kong stepped up measures to contain the virus, China appeared increasingly frustrated by travel bans imposed on its citizens amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to observers, who added this could lead to economic ties being cut with other nations.
President Xi Jinping told his US counterpart Donald Trump in a telephone call on Friday that Beijing was doing all it could to contain the outbreak.
“We have adopted the most comprehensive and strictest prevention and control measures,” state broadcaster CCTV quoted him as saying.
Despite the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United States last week imposed a temporary travel ban on Chinese visitors. More than 80 countries have introduced some restriction or tightened their entry requirements.
Beijing’s top diplomat in Hong Kong, Chinese Foreign Ministry Commissioner Xie Feng, meanwhile, offered Hong Kong reassurances about the continued supply of essential goods following a wave of panic buying in the city.
He said: “The Chinese government and the [Hong Kong] government will continue to ensure the supply, not only of tissues, but rice, drinking water, meat and so on to Hong Kong.”
The chief secretary also sought to assuage worries over shortages. Cheung said people who needed to cross the border to supply the city and workers essential to government services would be exempted from the quarantine measures but would be monitored closely.
He added: “I want to stress, the supply of Hong Kong’s main food items … and daily goods are normal. There is no need to panic buy.”
In a Facebook post on Friday evening, the Centre for Health Protection cited eight examples of people exempted from the quarantine arrangements including cross-border truck and bus drivers, cabin crew, government officials on work and cross-border operations, and crew of cargo ships and fishing boats.
Calling on travellers to comply with the new quarantine measures, Cheung said: “I urge these people, especially those quarantined at home, to have a social conscience and civic responsibility, be cooperative and self-disciplined. Any rule breakers will be breaking the law.”
Under the policy, anyone returning from the mainland faces a mandatory 14-day quarantine, and the same applies to anyone who has travelled there within the past 14 days.
The government believes this will deter travellers from crossing the border, but critics fear people on the mainland will continue to come to Hong Kong for medical treatment.
Those wanting to enter the city will be required to fill a form to provide their address and contact information to facilitate the quarantine measures.
Travellers with visas or permits valid for less than 14 days will be barred from entering Hong Kong – effectively denying most mainlanders entry as they are typically given seven-day visas.
Health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee said there would be random checks and phone calls to see whether those under quarantine were staying put.
“The whole idea is for this person to stay at home and not to go out, so that in case they carry any virus it will not be transmitted to the rest of the community,” Chan said.
People would be able to arrange for their family members to bring them food, she added.
According to the gazette, the measures would be in effect for at least three months, up to May 7.
Officials did not address questions as to how immigration officers could verify whether those flying into Hong Kong from overseas had recently visited the mainland or what would happen if non-locals ordered to be quarantined were turned away by their hotels.
Mainland visitors would have to bear the cost of extending their hotel stay for two weeks and those with no accommodation would be sent to quarantine centres.
The three centres currently in operation provide about 97 units in total, each capable of housing between one and five people.
The quarantine measures were roundly dismissed by medical professionals, hotel workers and lawmakers across the political divide.
Infectious diseases expert Ho Pak-leung from the University of Hong Kong said while the new measures would reduce human traffic from the border, they would not entirely removed the risk, with the arrangements being “greatly reliant” on people’s self-discipline.
“This will easily lead to loopholes,” he said, urging the government to impose tougher penalties and to just ban all non-Hongkongers who had been to the mainland in the past 14 days.
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said the quarantine measures were unworkable.
“If you allow people to stay at hotels, how is this mandatory quarantine?” Kwok said, since visitors could still leave their rooms.
People could also give false phone numbers and addresses, making it hard to track them down, Kwok said. The scheme relied too much on self-reporting and individuals being self-disciplined, he said.
Pro-Beijing legislator Michael Tien Puk-sun said that Lam had refused to follow public opinion in barring all travellers from mainland, and instead chose to put out a “humiliating” policy to deter people from coming to Hong Kong.
“Why must [Lam] never do something people have asked for?” Tien said.
It would be more effective to put all locals returning from mainland China in quarantine facilities, and bar all non-locals from entering Hong Kong for a short period of time, he added.
Tien also cautioned that those under home quarantine could potentially spread the virus to their families.
Pro-government legislator Yiu Si-wing, who represents the tourism sector, said it would have been better if the government had booked a whole hotel building away from residential complexes to ease public concern.
Alex Tsui, chairman of the 430-member Hong Kong Hotel Employees Union, said the arrangement could compromise hotel workers’ safety given the centralised air conditioning of the buildings. Furthermore, they were not trained medically to keep an eye on guests’ health, he said.
Hong Kong International Airport, meanwhile, would segregate all mainland China flights from other international services, as part of the stricter quarantine measures being enforced, the Post has learned. Those refusing quarantine will be sent back to mainland China. Aircraft crew are exempt.
On Friday evening, the government announced an extension of work-from-home arrangements for civil servants, except for those manning essential services, by another week to February 16.
The move came as a strike among hospital workers seeking a full closure of the city’s borders with the mainland ended after members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which organised it, voted against extending the action.
But Cathay Dragon’s flight attendants were considering a strike action, threatening to boycott the airlines’s remaining flights to the mainland, already slashed to 22 such routes. A vote is set for Sunday.
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