Hundreds held on cruise ship in Hong Kong as authorities check for coronavirus

A passenger wearing a face mask looks out from a cabin of the World Dream cruise ship in Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong, on Feb 5, 2020.
A passenger wearing a face mask looks out from a cabin of the World Dream cruise ship in Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong, on Feb 5, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - More than 1,800 passengers and crew on a cruise ship that docked in Hong Kong on Wednesday (Feb 5) were being kept on board while they were tested for a coronavirus after some crew reported fever, authorities said.

The former British colony saw its first death from the coronavirus virus on Tuesday. It has confirmed 18 cases, including at least four that were transmitted locally.

Hong Kong health workers have been on strike this week to demand that city authorities seal the border with China, where the virus originated last month, to block its spread.

The cruise ship, World Dream, operated by Dream Cruises, docked in Hong Kong after it was denied entry to the southern Taiwan port of Kaohsiung on Tuesday.

Three mainland Chinese who had been on board from Jan 19 to Jan 24 were found to have had the virus, Hong Kong’s health department said, adding that most of those remaining on board were from Hong Kong.

“For the time being, we cannot conclude the likely time of finishing the quarantine measures,” said Leung Yiu-hong, an official at the city’s department of health.

Dream Cruises, which is operated by Genting Hong Kong, said in a statement the three “confirmed” cases of the virus had disembarked in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on Jan 24.

The coronavirus epidemic, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, has rekindled memories in Hong Kong of a 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), another coronavirus that began in China and killed nearly 300 people in the city.

The latest virus has spread rapidly in China with nearly 25,000 people infected and 490 deaths, most in Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei.

Hong Kong health workers and members of other trade unions have demanded that the border with the mainland be completely sealed to block it.

“As the disease is spreading rapidly in our community, and locally infected cases are steadily increasing, we are dangerously close to a massive community outbreak comparable to Sars,” a newly formed union called the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) said in a statement.

The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has suspended some links with the mainland and closed some border crossings but she has left three open, arguing that to close the entire border would be inappropriate, impractical and discriminatory.

Thousands of medical staff have joined members of other trade unions this week and the city’s Hospital Authority has warned that emergency services are being severely hampered.

Hong Kong’s beleaguered public hospital network was suffering from staff shortages and limited hospital beds before the coronavirus outbreak.

On Wednesday, dozens of medical representatives including the chairwoman of HAEA, Winnie Yu, marched to government headquarters to press their demands for the border to be sealed.

The health scare comes after months of at times violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong sparked by fears its autonomy, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, is being eroded by Beijing.

Some pro-democracy protesters have come out in support of the HAEA strike with some demonstrations beginning to take on the characteristics of the pro-democracy protests.

Overnight, police fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd in the city’s rural New Territories after protesters denounced the government’s refusal to seal the border.

On Wednesday, masked workers brandished posters reading“Hospital workers on strike” and “If we burn, you burn too” as they petitioned Lam to meet them and handed in a letter to her office on behalf of front-line medical staff.

Thousands of Hong Kong people waited in long queues on Wednesday to buy face masks with some camping overnight to secure their place, broadcaster RTHK reported.