Hong Kong’s retail and tourism sectors have become pessimistic about the resumption of quarantine-free travel across the territory’s borders with Macau and the mainland by October after new outbreaks were reported in the region.
The Macau government said Tuesday it received notification from Zhuhai authorities that samples they collected from two Macau residents had tested positive. The couple’s son and daughter were then identified as infected.
Macau’s health authorities said the four were infected with the more infectious Delta variant. They said it was likely that the daughter, who joined a dancing trip with 30 people to fly from Zhuhai to Xi’an in Shaanxi province between July 19 and 24, was the first infected person in the cluster. Her brother and parents later showed symptoms of the illness.
It was said that the plane taken by the daughter on July 19 had arrived from Nanjing to Zhuhai earlier on the same day. Two passengers flying from Nanjing to Zhuhai on that plane previously tested positive.
Due to the outbreaks, the Macau government declared a state of “immediate prevention” from 3:30pm on Tuesday and ordered Covid tests for the gaming city of 680,000 people. People must provide a negative Covid test result done within 12 hours if they want to leave the city. The latest outbreak also sparked panic buying in supermarkets as Macau has not seen a local case for more than 400 days.
Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng said it was not necessary to shut down casinos for the moment as it was likely that the infected daughter contracted the virus on the July 19 flight. Ho said the girl sat on the same seat where two patients from Nanjing had occupied.
The Hong Kong government also announced that from August 4, anyone who had been in Macau over the past 14 days could not return to the city under the Return2hk scheme, which allows Hong Kong residents quarantine-free entry upon returning to the territory if they test negative for the virus.
A 13-year-old Hong Kong girl and her family are being sent to a quarantine camp as she stayed in the same room with the Macau girl during the dancing trip last month.
Separately, a 43-year-old construction worker, who lived in Sham Shui Po in Kowloon, tested positive preliminarily on Tuesday. However, his sample tested negative for the coronavirus on Wednesday but positive for the Covid-19 antibodies, showing that he might have recovered from a previous infection.
Media reports said this unvaccinated man had visited hospitals for chest pain in May and June.
Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s Communicable Disease Branch, said Wednesday the man was probably a “re-positive” case, but authorities had not been able to find out the exact time of his infection yet.
“The man has been undergoing regular testing, his regular testing started from May – although he had one or two tests at the end of March – so one of the possibilities is that he had an infection quite early on, maybe before May or March,” Chuang said.
If the man has been infected recently through an unknown source, his case would have broken a 56-day streak of zero new untraceable local infections in Hong Kong.
Since the second quarter of last year, Macau and the mainland have adopted a “zero infections” strategy by implementing tough anti-epidemic measures. As the two places successfully controlled their epidemic situations, they have resumed quarantine-free travel since last September.
Last year, the Hong Kong government tried to maintain local infections at low level and avoided launching severe measures such as citywide tests and large-scale lockdowns. However, such strategy failed to prevent the city from being hit by the fourth epidemic wave between last November and January this year.
Since then, the government has locked down infected areas, tightened quarantine measures and banned flights coming from high-risk countries to stay in line with Beijing’s “zero infections” strategy.
Yiu Si-wing, a lawmaker representing the tourism sector, said his sector had previously expected that Hong Kong could reopen its border with Macau and the mainland by October but such hope seemed to have vanished due to the recent outbreaks in the latter two places. Yiu said the previously scheduled travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore had burst twice and would probably be unable to resume in the coming few months.
He said among the 1,600 travel agencies in Hong Kong, only 100 to 200 were organising “cruise-to-nowhere” trips while 400 were running local tours. He said a majority of travel agencies were having no income while some of them might go bankrupt if the border between Hong Kong and the mainland could not reopen this year.
Yip Kin-ming, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a director of the China Economic and Social Council, said the chance that the Hong Kong-mainland border could reopen in short term had become slim after the Delta variant was spread from Nanjing to a dozen of Chinese provinces in late July.
However, Yip said the two places should continue to push forward the discussion about whether vaccinated people could be allowed to travel across the border with shorter quarantine periods.
Health authorities in China on Wednesday reported 71 domestic cases, the highest since January. The country is fighting against the Delta variant by launching citywide tests and locking down millions.
Medical experts said Hong Kong should maintain its anti-epidemic measures until the city achieved “herd immunity.”
Infectious disease expert Leung Chi-chiu said it was right for Hong Kong to quickly remove Macau from the “Return2hk” scheme, so that from now on people who return from Macau would need to undergo home quarantine. Leung said if the situation became worse, returnees from Macau should be quarantined in hotels instead.
“The Macau case does illustrate the fragility of a bubble with the mainland,” Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist from the University of Hong Kong, told RTHK. “I know that’s what we are going for. If we can maintain zero Covid for a period of time, if we can get the vaccine coverage up to a higher level, then we have the opportunity to establish a bubble with the mainland with free travel in both directions.”
On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government launched several new measures to help boost the city’s vaccination rate. It said Hong Kong would have 70% of its population vaccinated with their first dose by the end of September.