Cathay Pacific, HK govt under fire in LegCo over surge in Covid-19 cases

Cathay Pacific has come under fire for contributing to the current surge in Covid-19 cases. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Cathay Pacific has come under fire again, this time in the first Legislative Council (LegCo) meeting of the year on Wednesday (Jan 12) with some lawmakers criticising the government and the city's flagship carrier for contributing to the current surge in Covid-19 cases.

Two crew members had flouted self-isolation rules and this led to a number of clusters in the city. Those involved have been sacked.

During the two-hour LegCo session, where Chief Executive Carrie Lam took questions, lawmaker Li Sai Wing slammed the government for allowing exemptions to air crew.

Lawmaker Michael Tien said "the loophole" for air crew led to tightened restrictions in the city and caused pain to those in the food and beverage sector.

Addressing the Chief Executive, he said: "Will you apologise to Hong Kong residents, especially Tuen Mun residents, for the government's poor performance in monitoring aircrew members?"

But Mrs Lam defended the monitoring mechanism for aircrew, telling lawmakers not to "blindly criticise" officials for not performing their job because a few individuals had violated the rules.

Given that investigations into the airline are ongoing, Mrs Lam declined to share details of the case but promised that it would be reviewed.

In a reply to The Straits Times, Cathay Pacific said that it had supported and complied with the government's measures in order to keep as many flights operating as possible, while trying to keep staff, customers and the community safe.

"In compliance with the relevant regulations, from July to December 2021, it was common practice for our cabin crew to travel outbound as aircrew on passenger flights, lay over at their destination in strict isolation and return to Hong Kong on a cargo-only passenger aircraft. Throughout this period, we consistently followed the regulations, acted with full transparency and provided accurate documentation to the authorities."

The airline added that its aircrew showed "tremendous courage, resilience and professionalism as they have worked selflessly in extraordinarily demanding conditions".

The heated exchange in the LegCo came a day after the carrier's chairman, Mr Patrick Healy, promised to comply with two government investigations into the airline to see if isolation rules were flouted and if Cathay Pacific had carried crew returning to Hong Kong on cargo-only flights to avoid hotel quarantine.

In a video to staff on Tuesday reviewed by Reuters, Mr Healy apologised for the "disruption and anguish" caused by the current outbreak, which has led Hong Kong to shut primary schools and set back plans for cross-border travel with mainland China.

Mr Healy said the airline's crew, all of whom were fully vaccinated, had altogether spent 62,000 nights in quarantine hotels in 2021, with none contracting Covid-19 in the first eight months of the year.

But cases arose with the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and 11 crew members were infected with it in December.

The government then tightened quarantine rules for air crew to seven days' hotel quarantine before another period of home quarantine and multiple tests. Previously, it was just three days' home isolation.

The stricter rules led to the airline cancelling most of its planned passenger and cargo flights this month.

The carrier is now operating at about 20 per cent of its pre-pandemic cargo capacity and around 2 per cent of its pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity. 

Mrs Lam told lawmakers on Wednesday that Hong Kong would feel the effects of the harsh rules as cargo traffic and the supply of goods into the city are affected.

An air crew member, who is in his 30s and wished to be known only as Tom, said morale was very low among Cathay Pacific staff, who are ostracised in public as residents and lawmakers "push the blame to us".

"We don't even dare to wear our uniform out to work. One colleague said people spat at him when he wore his uniform to work. Another said that when he wears his uniform, people around him part like the Red Sea," Tom added.

"If you have a company of so many employees, can you control everyone? This is the only Hong Kong airline, do they want it gone?"

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