A total of 33 senior Hong Kong government officials were among a group of 170 people sent to the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Center after they attended a Chinese official’s birthday party on Monday where some guests carried the Omicron variant.
Senior officials including Home Affair Secretary Caspar Tsui, Police Commissioner Raymond Siu and Independent Commission Against Corruption Commissioner Simon Peh attended a birthday party for Witman Hung, the Principal Liaison Officer for the Hong Kong, Shenzhen Qianhai Authority.
This comes as Hong Kong tightened social distancing and flight rules this week to fight the spread of Omicron.
A woman linked to the cluster of a 28-year-old female flight attendant who arrived from the United States on December 27 tested positive preliminarily on Thursday. She attended the birthday party and could have infected a 53-year-old employee of Radio Television Hong Kong, a public broadcaster.
On Thursday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she was very disappointed that Tsui and other senior officials went to an unnecessary gathering as Hong Kong was hit by its fifth epidemic wave. Lam said the government would handle the case in a serious manner.
Since local Omicron cases were first identified last week, the Lam administration has been under huge pressure from business sectors as well as the central government as Hong Kong had failed to achieve its target of maintaining zero local infections.
The outbreaks are politically sensitive as Beijing, which is also worried by virus outbreaks in Xi’an, will soon hold the Winter Olympics, while Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections will enter its nomination period in February.
Hong Kong people who had expected to travel to the mainland without quarantine were disappointed by the further delay of the long-awaited “border reopening” scheme, but the owners of restaurants and small businesses also complained they would suffer from huge losses after the government tightened its social-distancing rules from Friday.
More than 300 people were sent to a quarantine camp as they were linked to a cluster of nine people in a virus outbreak that originated from a 44-year-old male Cathay Pacific flight attendant at a restaurant in Kowloon Tong last week. They blamed the government for allowing newly-arrived aircrew staff to walk freely on the streets without quarantine.
A 28-year-old female Cathay Pacific flight attendant last week passed the Omicron virus to her mother, who then infected several others at different sites. After several transmissions, the Omicron variant was brought to Hung’s birthday party at the Reserva Ibérica Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Wan Chai on Monday.
During the event, some participants took off their masks and had meals, while some said they only dropped by for a while. On Friday, the government decided to send all 170 participants to the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Center in a bid to show the impartiality of the city’s strict quarantine rules and regain public trust.
“Principal officials or other senior officials of the SAR government have to perform their respective duties in observing the rules promulgated by the Food and Health Bureau, and also watch their own behavior,” Carrie Lam said.
“They should not be engaged in activities which will carry risks and create more work for the Center for Health Protection and make things more complicated.”
Lam said she was particularly disappointed with Tsui, who was responsible for the city’s district lockdown measures. Tsui apologized for attending the party.
In Hong Kong, people are required to wear masks in public areas, except when eating or doing exercises, while outdoor activities should not be joined by more than four people. At restaurants, there are detailed rules about how people can sit together in accordance with their vaccination status.
“Everyone around the world is fighting the pandemic, and you held this gathering? This wouldn’t be right for normal citizens, let alone senior officials and famous people,” a Hong Kong citizen surnamed Cheung said in an RTHK radio show on Friday. “Don’t let us see that only senior officials and famous people are allowed to have gatherings, while normal citizens can’t even dine out.”
The public was also stunned by the fact that dozens of senior officials and lawmakers attended the birthday party of Hung, who is a low-ranking Chinese official in Qianhai.
Last September, the central government announced deepening “reforms and opening up” of the Qianhai zone and expanded the size of the area from 14.9 square kilometers to 120.6 square kilometers.
Hung said he felt sorry for hosting a party on Monday and he would have retrospection at the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Camp.
Half a century ago, Penny’s Bay was a small village with only 70 families. After the Hong Kong government and the Walt Disney Company signed an agreement in 1999 to develop the area into Hong Kong Disneyland, a total of HK$450 million has been spent to clear the soil polluted with toxic chemicals and heavy metal substances in the area.
In early 2020, the government decided to build a quarantine camp at a spare site on Penny’s Bay. Now the facility has 1,916 rooms. Last May, 40 people suffered from food poisoning there, forcing the government to change the food supplier.
Last month, the government announced that incoming travelers from the United Kingdom had to spend their first four days at the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Center during their 21-day quarantine period. Many travelers postponed their plans to return to Hong Kong to avoid staying in a hostel-like environment.