Taiwan to quarantine pilots of its largest airline amid COVID-19 outbreak

FILE PHOTO: Passenger jets of Taiwan's China Airlines at Taipei Songshan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan, June 8, 2020.REUTERS/Ann Wang

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan will quarantine all pilots for its largest carrier China Airlines Ltd for 14 days as it tries to stop an outbreak of COVID-19, the health minister said on Monday, impacting a lifeline for the island's trade-dependent economy.

Taiwan has generally kept the pandemic under control due to early prevention with only sporadic domestic cases, but since last month it has been dealing with an outbreak linked to China Airlines pilots and an airport hotel where many of them stayed. There have been 35 confirmed infections so far in the outbreak.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told reporters the only way to break the chain of transmission at the carrier is to quarantine all China Airlines pilots currently in Taiwan and any who return.

"This will have a big impact on China Airlines, on its passenger and freighter flights, and for the crew, too. But for the safety of the whole community we cannot but make this decision," he said.

The pilots will only be allowed out of quarantine once they have tested negative, Chen said.

China Airlines, a major cargo carrier, said it would split the quarantining pilots into groups and try "as much as possible to maintain flight operations; it is not a total grounding."

China Airlines will prioritise cargo flights, but there will be disruption even as they "go all out" to ensure they can still fly, it said.

"The short-term reduction in Taiwan's import and export capacity will affect the delivery time of goods," China Airlines said, without elaborating.

Taiwan's health authorities believe some of the pilots got infected overseas, then spread the infection upon returning to Taiwan, and that others could have been infected by pilots from other airlines staying at the same hotel.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Tom Hogue)

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