Intellasia East Asia News – Coronavirus: health experts call for HK to axe quarantine exemptions for aircrew; New Zealand no longer ‘low-risk’ destination

Coronavirus: Hong Kong may restrict movements of quarantine-exempt aircrew in light of pilots’ Covid-19 infections

Hong Kong authorities may restrict the movements of local aircrew who are exempt from quarantine on their return from overseas, after two cargo pilots tested positive for Covid-19 and triggered the isolation of 120 pupils linked to the family of one of them.

The infection of the two pilots, who were among five cases confirmed on Wednesday, sparked fears the city’s negotiations with mainland China on fully reopening the border would be delayed. But the aviation industry also hit back strongly on any potential tightening, with Cathay Pacific warning the move would disrupt the global supply chain.

Local health officials expressed concern about the cases.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

“We are rather worried about the infections of these two aircrew members… as they had high viral load and were highly transmissive,” said Dr Albert Au Ka-wing, principal medical and health officer of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch.

Centre controller Dr Edwin Tsui Lok-kin added that the risk of community spread was “relatively high”.

“We will work with Transport and Housing Bureau colleagues to further review if there is a possibility to consider further restricting the movements of exempted persons, [such as] aircrew, in Hong Kong,” he said, adding authorities would also look into “locations of isolation or quarantine”.

Tsui said the government would try to strike a balance between public health needs and cargo and aviation operations.

In response, Cathay Pacific said any tightening of cargo aircrew quarantine rules could force it to cut flights, not just harming the airline but also choking the city and affecting global supply chains.

“Tightening the travel restrictions for aircrew operating cargo services would significantly impede our ability to continue to mount these important flights,” an airline spokeswoman said. “This would seriously disrupt the supply chain and the flow of goods into and out of Hong Kong.”

Aircrew would need to volunteer for closed-loop operations, flying for three weeks and living in airport hotels throughout, but Cathay already had a shortage of such staff as employees were unwilling to be separated from families for long, she added.

Earlier in the day, health experts had called for tighter quarantine arrangements for aircrew to seal off any remaining avenues of coronavirus transmission in Hong Kong.

Respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu slammed the quarantine exemption for aircrew as “highly dangerous”.

“If we don’t plug this loophole, with global passenger and cargo freight services going to fully resume, our community will easily see the emergence of a fifth Covid-19 wave,” he said.

The two pilots, who returned to Hong Kong from Frankfurt on November 6, were exempted from quarantine on arrival, and were staying at home in Tsim Sha Tsui and Discovery Bay, respectively.

Leung suggested aircrew be placed on duty for one or two-month rotations, during which time they would stay in designated hotels. To go on leave, they would first have to undergo 14 days of quarantine before re-entering the community.

When the government announced aircrew quarantine in February, Cathay Pacific slashed passenger flights by 60 per cent and cargo services by a quarter, worsening its already loss-making operations.

Cargo flights have saved many airlines, including Cathay as one of the largest freighter carriers, from oblivion. With seaports choked around the world, and most passenger planes grounded, the urgency to move goods has exerted significant pressure on air cargo.

Under the government’s rules, local crew members operating passenger and cargo flights are subject to different arrangements. Staff serving commercial flights have to stay in quarantine hotels for seven days before re-entering the community, while those on cargo routes are exempt if they are returning from medium and low-risk countries.

Cargo crew members are subject to self-monitoring including temperature checks and must take six Covid-19 tests spaced out over 19 days, but are otherwise free to move around the city. They are, however, advised to avoid unnecessary social contact during the monitoring period.

Airlines, meanwhile, must ensure cargo crew are isolated from the local community while overseas, but some contact with others is inevitable, especially in airports and hotels, and on transport.

Crew members who violate company protocol by leaving their hotel rooms during stopovers risk disciplinary action, and probable dismissal.

Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said the pilots’ infections had “raised the alarm”.

As to whether the cases would further delay the full reopening of the border with the mainland the driving factor behind Hong Kong’s strict zero-Covid strategy Hui said he believed Beijing would be sensitive to the risks posed by quarantine-exempted groups. He said one possible solution was quarantining aircrew in hotels for one week upon their return from overseas.

“The Delta variant has a shorter incubation period, which lasts around four days. One week means that roughly two incubation periods could be covered,” he said. “That is better than allowing those staff members to return home.”

A one-week quarantine period, he added, would also strike a balance between safety and the manpower needs of airlines, which have said they are unable to put staff in isolation for the usual duration of at least 14 days.

Meanwhile, the only country deemed “low-risk” for Covid-19 on Hong Kong’s three-tier scale, New Zealand, will lose that designation next week as it follows many other countries around the world in pivoting to a strategy of living with the virus.

The country will instead be shifted into the medium-risk category, meaning travellers to the city from New Zealand will be subject to longer quarantine requirements.

In announcing the decision, which will take effect on November 17, health officials on Wednesday cited the country’s shift in pandemic strategy.

Starting next week, fully vaccinated travellers from New Zealand will be required to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, rather than seven. They will then be subject to seven days of self-monitoring, and compulsory testing on their 16th and 19th days in Hong Kong.

Unvaccinated arrivals will need to spend 21 days in isolation, while non-Hong Kong residents who have not been inoculated will be barred from entering the city from New Zealand entirely.

Since reopening its borders to neighbouring countries, New Zealand has seen a rise in Covid-19 infections. On Wednesday, it confirmed 149 new cases, with the latest seven-day average at 154 a day.

The country’s fully vaccinated rate stands at 82 per cent, while just 10 per cent of the eligible population has not received a first dose or booked an appointment to do so.


Category: Hong Kong

Print This Post

Source link