A woman undergoes a Covid-19 test at a mobile specimen collection station in Hong Kong on May 3, 2021. Hong Kong officials are working on new measures to prevent the spread of the new variant. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency

The Hong Kong government has denied overreacting after sending thousands of residents to quarantine centers for 21 days after eight people were found infected with the South African variant.

“We ordered all residents who live in the same building with a patient to go to quarantine centers for 21 days as we wanted to cut off the transmission chain of the variant in the community,” Health Secretary Sophia Chan said on Friday.

“Now we know that the variant did not cause a large-scale outbreak in the city, our measures will be more precise in future.”

Ronald Lam, controller of the Center for Health Protection, said a mandatory test notice would be issued to any building in which a new variant case was identified.

However, it would not be necessary to send all residents to quarantine for 21 days unless the building had subdivided flats or contaminated public facilities or there was more than one case in a building.

Residents would only be required to be tested on the 3rd, 7th, 12th and 19th day and exercise self-monitoring of their health until the end of the 21-day period, he said.

For infections that didn’t involve mutated coronavirus, close-contacts of patients would be quarantined for seven days, instead of 14, if they were fully inoculated, Lam said. For cases that involved variant strains, fully vaccinated close-contacts would only have to spend 14 days at a quarantine camp, instead of 21 days.

A woman is tested for Covid-19 at a mobile collection station in Hong Kong on May 3. Photo: Miguel Candela/Anadolu Agency/AFP)

Lam said it was not overreacting to have quarantined thousands of residents for 21 days as the mutated virus was more infectious and harmful and had a longer incubation period. He said those who had recently been put in quarantine would be released back to their homes.

In the past, a residential building could be evacuated only if the virus had spread across several units or contaminated the environment. Residents only had to be isolated if they were not close contacts of the infected.

Criminal investigation

Since a Filipino domestic worker in Tung Chung tested positive for the mutated virus on April 29, several more cases have been identified. The authorities decided to put under quarantine thousands of residents who live in buildings where the cases were found, including Tung Chung, Tsuen Wan, Pok Fu Lam and Kornhill. All these residents tested negative for the coronavirus.

The government also ordered 370,000 foreign domestic workers to undergo virus tests by May 9. Some helpers said they queued up for hours on the street for the test.

Health officials later found that all the eight variant cases, involving an Indian engineer from Dubai, could be linked as the patients had met directly or indirectly in private parties.

A woman leaves a mobile specimen collection station after undergoing a Covid-19 test in Hong Kong on May 3. Photo: Miguel Candela/Anadolu Agency/AFP

Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said police should investigate whether anyone in the cluster had deliberately concealed their movements around the territory, hampering efforts to trace close contacts.

“I suspect they are lying. I think they government must handle it solemnly. It should refer the cases to the police to conduct a criminal investigation. If there’s enough evidence, they should be prosecuted,” Ho said.

“Otherwise, how could they answer to the public and the entire population of domestic helpers in Hong Kong?”

Unnecessary measure

Some residents who lived in the same building with the patients said the 21-day quarantine measure was too tough and unnecessary. Some complained about the food and the environment in quarantine camps.

At the Royalton building at 118 Pok Fu Lam, dozens of residents refused to go into quarantine and wrote to Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, complaining that the arrangement was flawed. They said they could rather be isolated at home as they were living in a standalone building.

Jonathan Cummings, one of the residents at the luxury block and a regional head of a global brand consulting and design group, told RTHK that his work would be severely affected if he went to a quarantine facility for 21 days. He said he could continue his work at home but not in a quarantine center.

Hong Kong locks down nearly 10,000 people in Yau Tsim Mong district in January 2021. Photo by Simon Jankowski/NurPhoto via AFP

Mung Siu-tat, head of the Confederation of Trade Unions, said the confederation had received about 200 complaints or enquiries from workers who had their pay deducted as they could not go to work after being sent to quarantine centers. Mung said the government should introduce quarantine leave for people put into isolation by health authorities.

Danny Lau, an honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, said he disagreed with Mung’s suggestion, which would have a big impact on restaurants when they were closed for quarantine.

Vaccinated travellers

Meanwhile, the government announced Friday that quarantine rules for fully inoculated inbound travelers would be relaxed from May 12.

Those coming from low-risk countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore will be quarantined at a hotel for seven days, instead of 14, and take mandatory Covid tests on two days afterwards.

The quarantine period for travelers from places considered medium risk will be reduced from 21 to 14 days. But the quarantine rules for those who fly in from high-risk countries will remain unchanged.

Vaccinated people coming from the mainland, Macau and Taiwan will be isolated for seven days, instead of 14. They will self monitor their health conditions for seven more days and undergo tests.

Read: New variant cases identified in Hong Kong