Hong Kong has announced its toughest pandemic rules yet after more than 100 local infections were detected in the past week.
Except for those involved in emergency services and essential public services, all other government employees will have to work from home starting from Wednesday for two weeks until December 15, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a media briefing on Monday.
She added that private companies were encouraged to follow suit. From Wednesday, the number of people allowed to gather in public places would be reduced to two from four.
The fine for those who violate social distancing or the mandatory mask rules would be increased from the present HK$2,000 (US$258), said Lam. Details of the new fine would be announced at a later date, pending legal advice, she said.
Over the past week, police and health officials have issued 484 fines under anti-pandemic rules.
Video game centers, karaoke parlors, mahjong parlors and swimming pools would be closed, while gyms, beauty and massage parlors could continue to operate with no more than two people in a group, she said.
Restaurants will be required to close at 10pm, two hours earlier than the current closing time, and the number of people allowed per table will be reduced to two from four. The government is also considering launching a hotline for the public to report people for holding parties in private residences or on yachts.
The Center for Health Protection said 275 cases had been recorded, including 17 imported ones and 258 local infections between Friday and Sunday. Of that number, 198 could be linked to previous ones and 60 had no known sources.
Of the local patients, 150 were related to a dance club cluster, the biggest infected group in Hong Kong with 520 people infected as of Sunday. More than 50 others tested preliminarily positive for the virus on Monday.
Although the number of confirmed cases fell from 115 on Saturday to 76 on Sunday, that did not mean the number would continue to decline, said Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection.
Because some of those infected were found in different places including hospitals, elderly care homes and restaurants, the public had to stay vigilant and abide by the social distancing rules and avoid gatherings, she added.
“It seems that it is more severe than the last wave, but it depends on the coming days … we have so far tightened some social distancing measures, increased the general awareness of the public and increased the testing. The testing so far is much easier than in the previous wave. Hopefully, this will help find out more cases and speed up the control,” she said.
Chuang said authorities hoped to be able to contain the outbreak more quickly this time, citing an increase in the city’s testing capacity.
As the weather turns colder, respiratory viruses were more active, said David Hui Shu-cheong, Chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at the Faculty of Medicine at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
It’s worrying that the current wave of Covid-19 cases involved a higher ratio of infections with unknown sources and it’s clear there were many hidden chains of transmission in the community, he added.
Overseas students coming back to Hong Kong should get a third coronavirus test 19 days after their return, on top of the two they already need to do before and during their 14-day quarantine, Hui said. In a small percentage of cases, the onset of symptoms comes after 14 days, added Hui.
In a media briefing, Lam was asked whether she should be responsible for the fourth-wave pandemic in Hong Kong as the “dance club cluster” was caused by a loophole in the government’s epidemic rules.
“The world is facing a worsening situation continuously. Many cities in Europe have gone into complete lockdown again. To be fair, we are not doing bad at all,” said Lam.
“We can do better. In fighting the epidemic, there is no perfect solution. We need to continue to find the best solution to deal with the situation of the day.
“It’s not the time for blaming. It’s a time for solidarity,” added Lam. “If every member of the community stuck to the rules of wearing masks, no close contact, no social gathering and staying home as far as possible, we would not have seen this major cluster involving over 500 confirmed cases, and more to come. So do you want to blame Hong Kong people as well?”
Lam also dismissed suggestions that the government had reacted too slowly to the current outbreaks, saying officials had rolled out some measures more quickly than during previous waves of infection.
The government announced on Sunday that all schools at the secondary level and below would suspend in-person classes from Wednesday until the Christmas break.
It meant there would be no school for the remainder of the year, except for primary six students who were preparing for secondary school entrance exams, as well as students in other grades preparing for public examinations, and they could be allowed to go back to school if necessary.
Ip Kin-yuen, Vice-President of the Professional Teachers’ Union, said schools could have become virus hotspots, which would expose students and teachers to danger. The pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers also said closing schools was a necessary step, given the severity of the outbreak.