All-out efforts to combat epidemic at critical juncture
26 July 2020
The COVID-19 epidemic in Hong Kong has remained severe lately as confirmed cases shot up with single-day records broken for several days running and death toll increasing in folds over a short span of time. Many of these cases were of unknown sources, local cases have scattered across the territory, and multiple clusters of community-acquired cases were identified concurrently. These, coupled with the diverse backgrounds of the confirmed cases, have made contact tracing and transmission chain breaking quite a challenge, which is worrying indeed.
Meanwhile, the global pandemic is still raging and obvious signs of deterioration have manifested. As at 9 a.m. on July 25, 218 countries/territories/areas reported a total of some 15.4 million COVID-19 cases, with cumulative fatalities reaching over 630 000. The global tally of new cases showed a drastic rise. Daily cases rose from 70 000 - 100 000 between end-March and mid-May to 160 000 - 280 000 between end-June and end-July.
To ensure the safety and health of citizens, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government has decisively tightened a series of anti-epidemic and social distancing measures over the past two weeks with a view to breaking the transmission chain. Let me recap some of the salient points below:
- First, members of the public must wear a mask in indoor public places, public transport termini and interchanges, or when taking a public transport carrier, or when entering or being present in an MTR paid area. This measure takes effect for 14 days from July 23 to August 5.
- Second, on regulations concerning catering business and premises, the number of customers at any catering premises at any one time must not exceed 50% of the premises’ normal seating capacity, and no more than four people may be seated together at one table. From 6 p.m. to 4.59 a.m. of the subsequent day, save for specific premises, no selling or supplying of food or drink for consumption on catering premises is allowed and only takeaways can be provided. In addition to the closure of bars and pubs, twelve categories of premises, including amusement game centres, fitness centres, places of amusement, beauty parlours, nightclubs, karaoke establishments and massage establishments, continue to suspend operation. These measures take effect for seven days until July 28.
- Third, as a stringent measure to prevent importation of the virus, conditions have been imposed under Cap. 599H from July 25, whereby a traveller coming to Hong Kong from the seven places1 specified under the regulation must, when boarding the flight, possess the original of the report for COVID-19 test with a negative result and a confirmation of room reservation in a hotel in Hong Kong for not less than 14 days. Subsequent to a further virus test upon arrival in Hong Kong, the traveller shall undergo compulsory quarantine at the said hotel for 14 days. In addition, Kazakhstan and the United States have also been included as specified places with effect from July 29.
The Government’s initiative to provide free COVID-19 testing for designated high-risk groups is running at full steam. This will cover some 400 000 persons including staff of residential care homes for the elderly (RCHEs), residential care homes for persons with disabilities as well as nursing homes, restaurant workers, taxi drivers and property management staff.
The recent spike in confirmed cases in several public housing estates in Tsz Wan Shan have brought great anxiety to residents especially the elderly in the district. To help ease their worries, the Home Affairs Department will co-ordinate free testing for residents of Tsz Ching Estate and adjacent estates where confirmed cases were recorded.
The health and safety of our citizens will remain under threat while social, economic and community disruptions are inevitable unless the epidemic in Hong Kong is under control. Should the situation change for the worse, the HKSAR Government will not hesitate but take tougher measures to further restrict the operation of premises and outdoor activities. However, the Government has no intention of imposing a lockdown or issuing stay-at-home orders as a containment measure at this stage.
This third wave of the outbreak is fierce and swift. Apart from isolating confirmed and suspected patients for hospital treatment, an important part of our anti-epidemic strategy is to arrange compulsory quarantine of higher-risk groups (including close contacts of confirmed patients) in quarantine centres. To this end, the Government is making an all-out effort to increase the number of units in quarantine centres within an exceedingly short time frame.
With the commissioning of 800 quarantine units constructed on the Government land at Penny’s Bay on July 18, a total of about 2 600 units are now in operation under four quarantine centres, namely Chung Yeung Estate, Junior Police Call Permanent Activity Centre in Pat Heung, Sai Kung Outdoor Recreation Centre and Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre Phase I.
Quarantine facilities are being built on another site originally reserved for future tourism development at Penny’s Bay, and 700 additional units are expected to be available by the end of September. The Chief Executive also announced last Sunday that the Government would build an additional 2 000 units at Penny’s Bay and strive for their completion by the end of this year. The total number of quarantine units provided at Penny’s Bay will then add up to 3 500.
As for Chun Yeung Estate under the Housing Authority, with restoration works and thorough disinfection in progress, Block 4 and Block 5 are expected to be ready for prospective tenants’ intake by the end of August.
Besides, Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village has been converted into a community isolation facility since July 24 for COVID-19 patients who are under the age of 50 with self-care capabilities. Manned by nursing staff and doctors, the facility is connected to the Hospital Authority’s clinical information system which enables the performance of clinical management and documentation as in a ward. The patients therein are monitored and tested for coronavirus on a daily basis. They should have two negative test results before leaving the facility.
I am very concerned about the recent emergence of local infection cases in RCHEs. As close contacts of such confirmed cases usually have special medical needs, such as having to stay in bed and use specific medical equipment, quarantine centres for general use are not suitable for them to stay. To meet such needs, the Government has arranged to set up designated temporary quarantine centres, i.e. the Hong Kong PHAB Association Jockey Club PHAB Camp in Pok Fu Lam and the Cheung Muk Tau Holiday Centre for the Elderly in Sai Kung.
To get better prepared, the Government has set up in AsiaWorld-Expo (AWE) an additional temporary quarantine centre for residents of RCHEs. It will serve as a supplementary facility if need be. Last Thursday, I inspected the work progress at AWE. The first hall, which commissioned service last Friday as a temporary quarantine centre for residents of RCHEs, has a capacity of 100 beds. As for the hall that is reserved for future expansion, it will accommodate about 350 additional beds.
This temporary quarantine centre has nursing staff on duty round the clock and designated staff taking daily care of those under quarantine. As a quarantine centre, AWE has an overall design (including high ceiling and ventilation) that meets the requirements of both the Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health and our experts, and will be operated in strict adherence to the infection control guidelines.
The Central Authorities have all along taken heed of the changes in Hong Kong’s epidemic situation and staunchly supported the anti-epidemic work of the HKSAR Government. In response to the recent request of the Chief Executive, the Central Authorities have offered timely assistance in enhancing our virus testing capacity and retrofitting AWE into a makeshift facility similar to the “mobile cabin hospital” on the Mainland.
In this battle against the epidemic, colleagues from relevant departments, particularly the Department of Health, are faced with considerable challenges and pressure. Nonetheless, they have overcome many difficulties through concerted efforts and solidarity. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the staff of the relevant departments and organisations as well as the volunteers (including 130 retired police officers of the Police Anti-Coronavirus Contingent) who have worked day and night to put the quarantine centres into operation in a short space of time. My deep respect also goes to the healthcare personnel and frontline workers who have stood fast at their posts to look after patients with unswerving dedication and tireless efforts.
The current wave of the outbreak is the most serious one over the past six months. The coming fortnight will be crucial in our fight against further spreading of the coronavirus in the community. While the Government will take all necessary measures in this battle, it is equally important for the public to exercise self-discipline and co-operate. I earnestly urge members of the public to stay home as far as possible, minimise social contacts and refrain from dining out. In compliance with the compulsory measure, they should wear a face mask to protect themselves and others while observing personal and environmental hygiene and washing their hands frequently. They should also suspend non-essential social or meal gatherings and reduce their visits to markets. As senior citizens are involved in quite a number of confirmed cases, let us show concern for the elderly around us by caring more about their health conditions and reminding them to take anti-epidemic measures.
Many people mistakenly believe that they may take off their masks at no risk in the countryside or places with low pedestrian flow. We should never try our luck when it comes to fighting the epidemic. All gazetted beaches of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department have been closed because of the epidemic situation and entering a closed beach is illegal. I call on members of the public to refrain from swimming or sunbathing at beaches to prevent crowds from gathering and reduce the chances of spreading the virus in the community.
Turning to the Hong Kong National Security Law, the HKSAR Government continues its efforts in public education, explanation and promotion. Our principal officials are hosting a series of webinars for exchanges with local and overseas organisations to ensure an accurate understanding of the Law.
In this connection, I had an online dialogue with an internationally renowned think tank in Paris during a webinar held last week and wrote to some foreign media to make clarifications in response to their biased reporting on the Law.
1 Seven countries, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa, are currently regarded as high-risk places.