The mutated coronavirus was found in samples from people coming from France and the Philippines. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Marti diepi

A total of 15 people in Hong Kong have been found to have the mutant coronavirus originating in the UK, which is thought to be 70% more infectious than the original strain that swept through the world.

Laboratories at the Health Department and the Polytechnic University discovered the mutated virus in samples from five infected people who came to Hong Kong from the UK, the Philippines and France from December 13 on.

One person, identified only as patient No 9003, arrived in Hong Kong from the Philippines on flight PR300 on December 22. Another, identified as patient No 9006, came to Hong Kong from France via Amsterdam last Saturday. Both tested positive on Monday.

“As the mutated virus has been spread to many other countries since it was first discovered in the UK in September, it is within our expectation that some travelers coming from France and the Philippines were infected with the variant,” Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection, said at a media briefing on Tuesday.

She said the current rules that require all incoming travelers, except those from China, to quarantine in designated hotels for 21 days should allow authorities to identify all imported cases.

After the mutated coronavirus was identified in London, Hong Kong suspended all flights carrying travelers from the United Kingdom from December 22. People who had stayed in the UK for more than two hours within the past two weeks were not allowed to board flights to Hong Kong.

Stuck in the UK

Health officials also retested dozens of people who had visited the UK in early December.

Hong Kong’s Immigration Department said it had already received inquiries for assistance from 210 Hong Kong people who wanted to come home, but were stuck in the UK.

The decision to ban people from flying to Hong Kong from the UK was difficult but necessary, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a media briefing on Tuesday before the weekly Executive Council meeting.

“We do have a lot of returnees from the United Kingdom accounting for about one-third of arrivals at Hong Kong international airport. If we did nothing, it would be putting our city at great risk,” Lam said.

“We have to take this measure, which was very difficult, because it involves Hong Kong residents, and many of them are students or parents who have gone to visit the students and they need to come back.”

Lam said as the coronavirus situation globally was severe and the restrictions had to be “watertight,” otherwise Hong Kong would be at risk.

The UK has seen an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks as public health officials struggle to control the spread of a new variant of Covid-19 that is more contagious than previous variants.

The Center for Health Protection said a total of 32 cases were recorded in Hong Kong on Monday, the lowest since November 21. They included one imported case and 31 local infections. Nine local people who were infected had no known sources. More than 20 people tested positive preliminarily on Tuesday.

New Year Fair in doubt

One of those with an untraceable source of infection was a nurse who works at two private clinics in Mong Kok and Ho Man Tin. She was employed as a receptionist and did not take off her mask while working and ate her meals alone. There were no close contacts from the clinics.

Another newly confirmed case was a worker at a home for people with disabilities in Tsing Yi. Two residents are now being quarantined, while all the other residents and staff are to be tested for the virus.

If the government had the determination to achieve “zero infections” by mid-February, the Chinese New Year Fair should be canceled, Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Infection, told RTHK.

Although the number of infections continued to decline, a V-shaped rebound could happen if there are more outbreaks in hospitals and elderly care homes, Ho said.

Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said the government had yet to assess if the traditional Chinese New Year fairs would be held this year, but she said such large-scale events should be avoided.

In order to cut off all virus transmission chains, the government would deploy a lot more staff to trace the origins of the virus and consider extending mandatory tests to the second-tier close contacts of the infected people, Chan said.

Commenting on whether the government would forbid family gatherings at home, Chan said it would be considered if the number of infections rebounded. She said for the moment the government hoped that people would take the initiative and stop all cross-family gatherings.

Read: Online classes stay as HK virus hard to contain

Read: Hong Kong suspends flights from United Kingdom