A man who lived at Wan Hang House in Tai Po carried the Delta strain. Photo: Google Maps

Hong Kong has stopped flights from Indonesia from Friday after a local airport staff member was found infected with the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant on Wednesday.

The special administrative region will put Indonesia on the list of Group A1 or extremely high-risk places. People who have stayed there for more than two hours will be restricted from boarding passenger flights for Hong Kong.

The government said it launched the new measures by invoking the Prevention and Control of Disease (Regulation of Cross-boundary Conveyances and Travellers) Regulation (Cap. 599H) under the existing place-specific flight suspension mechanism.

Flights from a place will be suspended if five or more passengers test positive for Covid-19 with a mutant strain within seven days, according to the mechanism.

On Tuesday, six of the seven imported patients in Hong Kong were domestic workers from Indonesia. Of the seven, five had the L452R variant or the Delta strain first detected in India.

One more newly arrived Indonesian domestic worker was identified as infected with the mutant variant in the city on Wednesday. Over the past week, 11 imported cases were linked to the Delta strain. Seven of them came from Indonesia.

Since early June, Covid-19 cases in Indonesia have been growing rapidly with the average daily number hitting 13,681 in the past week, surpassing the peak of 12,865 during the last epidemic wave in late January.

Local health experts said the number increased as many people ignored a travel ban to visit their hometowns in May after Ramadan ended on April 30. They said the Delta variant would soon replace the Alpha variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, to become a dominant strain in Indonesia.

Hong Kong International Airport. An airline ground crew staff member tested positive preliminarily with the Delta strain. Photo: iStockiStock

As of June 14, the Delta strain had spread to 74 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Outbreaks of the variant were detected in China, the US and Africa. The mutation accounted for 10% of all new cases globally but more than 90% of new cases in the UK.

New case in Tai Po

Since April 20, the Hong Kong government has banned flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines after multiple imported cases carrying the N501Y mutation were identified. However, it continued to categorize Indonesia as a Group B or high-risk place, the same as the UK, the US, Canada and most European countries. Passengers from these places are required to be quarantined for 14 days in a designated hotel.

On June 15, the government put Indonesia on the list of Group A2 or very high-risk places, the same as Ireland. Arrivals from Indonesia were required to quarantine for 21 days in a designated hotel from Monday. On Wednesday evening, the government said all flights from Indonesia would be suspended from Friday.

On Wednesday, a 27-year-old local man who lived at Wan Hang House in Wan Tau Tong Estate in Tai Po and worked as an airline ground crew staff member at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), tested positive preliminarily with the Delta strain.

He last went to work at the airport on June 16. He also worked part-time on customer service at Uptown Plaza in Tai Po, where he last went to work on Tuesday. The man was not inoculated.

Airport Authority Hong Kong said that starting from August 1, all airport staff entering the airport restricted area would be required to present proof of full Covid-19 vaccination. It said the new rule was aimed at further strengthening the protection of airport staff, passengers and other airport users.

Infectious diseases expert Leung Chi-chiu said the government should have banned flights from Indonesia earlier as it was very likely that the ground crew staff member was infected at the airport during work. Leung said the incident exposed a loophole in Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic system.

Besides, Leung said the fact that a very high viral load of the mutated coronavirus was detected in sewage in Tai Po was a warning that the Delta strain could have been spread in the community.

Travel restrictions have caused a shortage of Filipino maids. Those now in Hong Kong can command higher wages. Photo: AFP / Liang Xiashun / Imaginechina

As of Thursday morning, health authorities have tested 2,100 residents of the building where the patient lived. No new patient was found. Residents of more than 30 buildings in Tai Po were also ordered to take tests.

The new case, confirmed on Thursday, was the first local infection in 16 days. On Monday, the Macau government said it would grant a daily quota for vaccinated Hong Kong people to enter only if Hong Kong could achieve zero local infections for 28 days in a row. In early June, a cluster of three Covid cases broke a 42-day streak of zero new untraceable local infections in Hong Kong.

Domestic workers

Since Hong Kong suspended flights from the Philippines on April 20, more than 5,000 domestic workers have failed to get to the territory. The resulting labor shortage has pushed up the salaries of the existing helpers in the city.

At present, the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers is HK$4,630 (US$596). Many employers are now paying between HK$5,500 and HK$6,000 to retain staff.

Chan Tung-fung, chairman of the Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies, said if the government suspended flights from Indonesia for three months, at least 3,000 domestic workers would fail to arrive in Hong Kong per month.

Chan said the latest flight ban would further boost the helpers’ monthly salaries by HK$500 over the current level. He said some families might offer up to HK$7,000 while helpers would be able to choose jobs with lighter workloads.

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