Hong Kong govt ramps up efforts to curb Covid-19 spread as it seeks to hand out subsidies

Fears of silent transmissions have prompted the government to do more to prevent a massive outbreak as vaccine hesitancy remains. - AFP

HONG KONG (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): The Hong Kong government is ramping up efforts to stem the surge of Covid-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, amid concerns over untraceable community spread, even as it seeks to hand out aid to those affected.

In a news briefing on Tuesday (Jan 18), Chief Executive Carrie Lam said eligible residents and businesses could receive financial aid before the Chinese New Year, as applications, which have begun, would be processed once received.

This is unlike previous rounds where officials processed all applications only at the close of the deadline.

The subsidies, amounting to HK$3.57 billion (S$620 million), were announced last Friday, together with the government's decision to extend strict measures such as closures of gyms and cinemas, as well as a ban on dining in after 6pm, till Feb 3.

"For the time being, we have no plans to relax what we have announced for implementation. But going forward, we will adjust our measures," Mrs Lam said.

She said if rules were to be eased, it would be done around Feb 14 under the vaccine bubble arrangement.

"In other words, staff and customers can only go into that prescribed premise after they have been vaccinated."

The Chief Executive rejected the suggestion of a citywide lockdown for mandatory testing, like in the mainland, saying current measures are effective, as 60 to 70 per cent of Omicron cases are detected in quarantine camps.

With about 18,000 people taking a vaccine dose daily in the past week or so, Mrs Lam said appeals from officials have worked.

The take-up among the seniors - the category with a dismal rate - also inched up. About 55 per cent of those aged 70 to 79 have had their first jab, while it is 27 per cent for those aged 80 and above.

As at Monday, 76.5 per cent of the 7.4 million population have had their first dose of vaccine, while 70 per cent have had two shots.

Currently, the authorities are worried about two infected patients. The first is a 43-year-old woman who tested positive for Omicron days after leaving the quarantine hotel and spread the virus to nine others.

The other is a sales staff member who caught the Delta variant and who works at a Causeway Bay pet shop that has a dozen branches islandwide.

Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan is expected to give details on Tuesday afternoon about the pet shop employee's infection, which is an untraceable case.

Fears of silent transmissions have prompted the government, which adopts a zero-Covid approach, to do more to prevent a massive outbreak as vaccine hesitancy remains.

In the coming weeks, the government will hand out 300,000 free Covid-19 rapid test kits to residents in all 18 districts.

Starting Tuesday, all residents entering Hong Kong via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge's Zhuhai Port will not be exempted from mandatory quarantine that was allowed under the Return2hk or Come2hk schemes.

The Hong Kong leader's comments came as the police said they have arrested and charged two former Cathay Pacific flight attendants for breaking Covid-19 rules.

In a statement late on Monday, the police said investigations revealed that the pair had arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on Dec 24 and 25.

They conducted "unnecessary activities" during their medical surveillance period, flouted the law on Dec 25 and 27, and later tested positive for Omicron.

The two aircrew had sparked clusters now detected in the community that ended Hong Kong's zero-infection streak of three months.

Dr Leung Chi Chiu, a respiratory medicine expert, told The Straits Times that Hong Kong's current outbreaks arose due to a delay in the strengthening of border control measures amid heavy air traffic during the festive periods.

"Apart from the loopholes in the quarantine exemption of aircrews, delay in stopping flights from areas with Omicron outbreaks led to an overload of our quarantine camp facilities, and the overflow of high-risk travellers to quarantine hotels made it less optimal for the control of airborne transmission."

Dr Leung said given the aggressive flight bans, what remains is the clearing of transmission in the community.

"With the fast spreading Omicron and Delta variants, we need to create an environment where everyone can stay home as far as possible, to slow the spread and to give time for our testing and contact tracing activities."

Lam also touched on the embarrassing case of a scandal-hit birthday party held on Jan 3 for Witman Hung, Hong Kong deputy to the Chinese Parliament, that was attended by 225 individuals, including 15 officials and almost two dozen lawmakers.

"We need to give an account to the public and I need to be fair to the restaurants concerned," she said, adding that investigations are under way.

Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui, who was among the first to issue an apology, was among the officials who joined the bash, and he was spotted leaving Penny's Bay quarantine camp on Monday night.

The last batch of government officials left the camp on Monday and had been ordered to "observe medical surveillance and home quarantine on their own leave", Lam noted. All are expected to return to office by Jan 25.

So far, Hong Kong has recorded more than 12,800 cases and 213 deaths.

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