Hong Kong’s leading health experts have called for a shutdown of non-essential businesses and reduced opening hours at shopping centres, given the large numbers of people still out and about despite daily warnings the city’s fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic could escalate beyond control at the current rate of infection.
Another 74 cases were confirmed on Sunday. All but four were contracted locally and 25 of those were untraceable, underscoring the alarming spread across the city.
“Even though people have been out and about less between Monday and Friday, from Saturday onwards, there has been heavy traffic and big crowds in malls,” Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said in a television interview. “It shows residents are not very cooperative.”
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The infectious disease expert, who advises the government on the pandemic, suggested malls, which were packed with shoppers on Sunday, should close six to eight hours earlier. Supermarkets could stay open, he said, but non-essential businesses such as hair salons or clothing stores should be closed.
Hui also urged the public to stay home and avoid parties or large gatherings with Christmas and the new year around the corner. If people remained uncooperative over social-distancing rules and pandemic restrictions, a curfew might be necessary to stop the relentless spread of the coronavirus, he warned.
“It will be hard to monitor private gatherings. If residents can’t follow all these stepped-up measures, then maybe we will have to implement a curfew, like in Melbourne, and only allow people outdoors for an hour for jogging,” he said.
But Hui again rejected the need for a mandatory mass-testing scheme, as suggested by pro-establishment politicians, saying such a move would not be effective unless initiated at the very beginning of an outbreak.
“We would need packaged measures which we could trigger in a short time, such as locking down the entire city for up to four weeks. We would need the consensus of both businesses and residents. Even flights might have to be stopped.”
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, another infectious disease specialist, echoed Hui’s warning that tougher rules might be necessary.
“More stringent social-distancing measures have been in place for around two weeks, but it seems there is no sign of effectiveness,” Tsang said.
“If there are still lots of people on the streets, even if opening hours of businesses have been reduced, the next step would be a citywide lockdown.”
Respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu, however, did not think adopting such drastic measures, which could harm the economy, would be effective in curbing the virus’ spread.
The increased fine may serve as a deterrent, but the government’s effort alone is not enough. We also need residents to be disciplined and stay home
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung
“If it’s not certain the epidemic will be brought under control during the period [of business suspension] … the outcome will be a failure ultimately,” Leung said.
Hong Kong has further tightened social-distancing measures since the start of this month, including reducing the number of people per restaurant table to two. Restaurants have been barred from providing dine-in services after 6pm since December 10.
Over the past week, authorities have issued 118 fines to those breaching mask-wearing regulations or exceeding the two-person limit on public gatherings. The fines were officially raised from HK$2,000 to HK$5,000 on December 11.
“The increased fine may serve as a deterrent, but the government’s effort alone is not enough. We also need residents to be disciplined and stay home,” Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung wrote on his blog on Sunday.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch at the Centre for Health Protection, took a more measured tone.
“Any gathering among people poses a risk of transmission, as the disease is transmissible even without symptoms,” she said. “Hong Kong has done well in the past, our mask-wearing rate is very high, and we have curtailed gatherings as much as possible, so maybe we need to be patient for a longer period of time.”
She noted that the number of daily infections had dropped from 109 the previous day, but said the overall surge was still a cause for concern.
“We can’t just look at one or two days. Hopefully, it will remain stable and drop gradually,” she said.
With the emergence of a more infectious mutated coronavirus strain, VUI-202012/01, in Britain this month, Chuang said authorities would continue to monitor imported cases.
She said the city had already stepped up preventive measures for returnees from abroad, including requiring them to undergo quarantine in specific hotels as well as taking a third coronavirus test.
Sunday also marked the death of one more Covid-19 patient, a 84-year-old woman who was a resident of Ho Yuk Ching Willow Lodge, where an outbreak was tied to the dancing venue cluster.
Hong Kong’s official coronavirus tally now stands at 8,152 cases, with 130 related deaths.
More infections also emerged from care homes and existing clusters in the city on Sunday, while the residents of additional residential buildings were ordered to undergo virus screenings.
Among the locations affected were the Hong Kong Society for the Aged’s Mrs YK Fung Home for the Elderly in Lam Tin and Haven of Hope Sau Mau Ping Day Activity Centre and Hostel, where each reported an infected staff member.
Residents from two more residential blocks were also asked to take coronavirus tests after multiple infections were reported. They were Yat Lai House at Yau Lai Estate in Yau Tong, where a total of seven cases from three flats in the block were reported, and Lam Tai House at Lam Tin Estate, where three units each logged one infection.
Mandatory testing for Shek Wing House at Shek Lai Estate was also a possibility, according to officials, as another resident tested preliminary-positive on Sunday after infections had earlier been reported in three other flats.
Chuang said mandatory testing would be imposed on the housing block if the latest case was confirmed.
Transmission of the coronavirus may also have taken place at the Mong Kok branch of Hong Kong Advanced Imaging, an imaging diagnostic centre. Two employees at the centre were among the latest confirmed cases, after a Covid-19 patient underwent a computed tomography scan there on December 7.
Four more cases linked to the cluster at the Sha Tin branch of Yata department store were also recorded, while the breakouts at Billy Sir Classroom and Glow Spa and Salon each logged two new cases.
Meanwhile, the daughter of the 62-year-old woman who died while waiting to be sent to quarantine after a family member contracted the virus, on Sunday accused health authorities of maladministration.
The older woman had suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Chuang, who expressed regret over the matter, said authorities would try to send all close contacts to quarantine centres within 24 hours. She said additional records would also be kept in special situations, such as people who have a physical disability or require extra care.
Separately, a report on the third-phase trial of the coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Sinovac Biotech was expected by Wednesday, Hui said, with the government to hold a meeting in January to review results and decide if it would activate the purchase agreement with the mainland company.
Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng
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