Covid-19 restrictions extended in Hong Kong until third day of Chinese New Year

Flight suspensions will continue until Feb 14, while large-scale events like the annual flower fairs will be cancelled. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Hong Kongers are in for a muted Chinese New Year after the government announced the extension of restrictions as the city grapples with an uptick in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, many linked to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Venues like gyms, cinemas and bars will remain closed and the dine-in ban after 6pm will continue for another 14 days until Feb 3 which is the third day of the new year.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday evening (Jan 14) also said that flight suspensions will continue until Feb 14, while large-scale events like the annual flower fairs will be cancelled.

"I know this will let a lot of people down," she told a briefing. "Covid is not yet under control."

She also announced another relief package for businesses affected, saying the government would disburse HK$3.57 billion (S$618 million) under the anti-epidemic fund and provide the relief as soon as the early part of Chinese New Year.

If the situation improves, the government may ease rules from Feb 4 for venues such as beauty parlours, Mrs Lam said, adding that only those vaccinated would be allowed into them.

"I hope to see the vaccination rate go up to over 80 or close to 90 per cent... then we may be able to allow these premises to start operating again under a vaccine bubble," she said.

Separately, health authorities on Friday disclosed that the city recorded nine additional infections, six of whom were imported cases.

"At present, although the number of Omicron cases has been steady, or as you can see today (it's) a little bit reduced, but we don't know whether there is still a silent transmission in some territories in Hong Kong. So, we can't say at present the transmission is already contained, but we have to keep monitoring the situation for a certain period of time," said Dr Edwin Tsui, controller of the Centre for Health Protection.

The current outbreak, which has been traced to two Cathay Pacific crew members, ended the city's three-month streak of no local transmissions.

The airline crew who breached home isolation rules have been sacked and the government has launched investigations into the airline.

Meanwhile, health officials confirmed that more people had attended a birthday party for a Hong Kong deputy to the 13th National People's Congress, or Chinese Parliament, which turned into another Covid-19 cluster. The number of guests rose from 100 to 225.

Two separate probes have been launched into the party, one to see if health regulations were breached and the other into the behaviour of government officials who were at the occasion.

Fifteen senior government officials and 20 lawmakers were found to have attended the Jan 3 birthday bash, when the rules allowed banquets of up to 200 people. Two guests were later found infected.

The affair has infuriated residents, particularly as it came when the city began reporting community cases.

"The internal probe hasn't quite completed," Mrs Lam said on Friday, adding that the cases would be dealt with impartially.

A criminal investigation has been launched to determine if laws were flouted and offenders would face prosecution, according to Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan.

The growing clusters in the community prompted the authorities to reimpose tough measures a week ago which has badly hit the food and beverage sector.

The chairman of the Eating Establishment Employees General Union Lam Tsin Kuok told The Straits Times that losses from the dining-in ban could total up to HK$100 billion, while 50,000 workers might be forced to go on unpaid leave or work shorter hours.

"This period leading up to Feb 3 is the golden period and everyone has gatherings, they dine out. Even if the measures ease after this, business for the catering sector would not be as good so we are hoping that the anti-epidemic fund would help the sector. Hopefully, this time round it is better executed," he said.

Hong Kong has recorded more than 12,800 confirmed cases and 213 deaths since the pandemic started.

In the past week, officials have conducted more than 1.1 million nucleic acid tests, issued 460 testing notices and detected confirmed cases in 30 rounds of ambush lockdowns.

The aggressive testing has strained the system, while the large volume of close contacts hauled into mandatory quarantine at Penny's Bay has stretched the facility which has been riddled with problems, including a power outage and no food for a day.

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