HONG KONG - Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday (Jan 11) that all those who breached Covid-19 rules will be held accountable, as the authorities launched investigations and further tightened measures amid growing outcry over a party hit by Covid-19 involving dozens of government officials.
Speaking at a weekly briefing, Mrs Lam said there were two investigations - one into the birthday party of Professor Witman Hung, a Hong Kong Deputy to the 13th National People’s Congress or Chinese Parliament, and the other into carrier Cathay Pacific.
There is also a separate probe into the behaviours of the government officials who joined the party.
So far, health officials said 214 guests, including 14 senior government officials and 20 lawmakers, had attended the Jan 3 birthday bash when the rules then allowed banquets of up to 200. Two guests were later found to have been infected.
In interviews with local media and through leaked photos, some guests were found to have failed to use the LeaveHomeSafe app or wear their masks when not eating or drinking.
Mrs Lam said that the number of guests went “well beyond the capacity of this restaurant”. She added that the investigation will centre on whether the operator and the guests had complied with the public health requirements.
As for Cathay Pacific, Mrs Lam said: “This has to be put under full investigation and we will take legal action once we have the full evidence of what wrong it has gone into.”
She noted that the probes are not meant to be “fault-finding”, saying: “I hope people will move away from this talk about fault-finding, who is a scapegoat or what.”
Mrs Lam added: “In a public health situation of this scale, the government has rolled out a lot of measures, a lot of regulations... but there could not be 100 per cent compliance.”
She said there have been more than 200 cases of non-compliance with home quarantine orders and most of these offenders received jail terms of between seven and 14 days.
Like the mainland, Hong Kong adopts a zero-Covid-19 approach backed by tough border controls that have largely cut off the city from the rest of the world. But its harsh quarantine rules of up to 21 days for inbound travellers and residents who are sent to quarantine camps had upset the community.
This has turned into public fury in recent days, when it was found that prominent people attended the party despite warnings from Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan days earlier against large gatherings.
Among the guests were two ministers – Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui and Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui – and lawmakers of the newly formed Legislative Council, all of whom tested negative.
The city reported its first Omicron cluster on Dec 31, breaking its three-month streak of no local cases. The government reimposed tough measures including shutting gyms and placing a ban on dining in restaurants after 6pm.
Cathay Pacific got embroiled in the public outrage, particularly after an infected aircrew member, who breached the company’s three-day quarantine rule and went out, sparked a cluster.
In recent days, the criticism of Cathay Pacific has increased, with pro-Beijing papers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po demanding action be taken against the airline and its management. But Ta Kung Pao had also warned against “over-interpretation” of the scandal-hit birthday party.
Some residents have taken to social media to express their outrage, calling for heads to roll.
A local who works in a beauty salon and wants to be known only as Ms Wong said: “The rich and powerful can get away with things while the rest of us suffer. It’s unfair but what can we do?”
Beauty salons are among 15 types of establishments forced to close for two weeks from Jan 7.
Another local in her 30s, who wants to be known only as Ms Lau, said: “I’m disappointed as there is always double standards between public officials and residents. It doesn’t make sense.”
Between Dec 30 and Jan 10, there were 354 confirmed cases, of which 312 were imported and 40 were linked to imported cases, said Mrs Lam, who defended the government’s aggressive quarantine rules.
She noted that the government now sends primary or secondary contacts of confirmed patients to quarantine camps.
Mrs Lam also announced that in-person classes for kindergartens and primary schools will be suspended from Friday (Jan 14) until after Chinese New Year and that the city will expand its vaccination programme to include children between the ages of 5 and 12.
She also said that the government will be launching the fifth round of the anti-epidemic funding and details will be announced on Friday, along with a review of the social distancing rules.
Hong Kong has recorded more than 12,700 confirmed cases and 213 deaths since the start of the pandemic, numbers that are among the lowest in the world.