Coronavirus: work from home scheme extended, harsh penalties laid out for quarantine violations as Hong Kong battles outbreak

Sum Lok-kei

Work from home arrangements for Hong Kong government employees were extended to February 16 on Friday, as officials also unveiled tough penalties to be faced by those who breach mandatory quarantine measures set to go into effect at midnight.

Originally expected to end on Monday, the expanded work from home period means government departments will only be providing emergency, essential and basic public services for another week as the city attempts to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

Addressing the moves at a Friday press conference, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said people arriving from mainland China who fail to honour the 14-day quarantine period could face a jail term of up to six months and fines as high as HK$25,000 (US$3,200).

He added that those involved in providing supplies for the city as well as workers essential to government services would be exempted from quarantine, though monitored closely.

He stressed that the quarantine policy would not affect the flow of goods from the mainland, saying the supply of daily necessities, including food, was normal.

In a Facebook post published on Friday evening, the Centre for Health Protection cited eight examples of those who would be exempted from quarantine, including cross-border truck and bus drivers, cabin crew, government officials with necessary functions, government agents and contractors necessary for cross-border operations, and the crews of cargo ships and fishing boats.

Calling on travellers to comply with the new quarantine measures, Cheung said: “I urge these people, especially those quarantined at home, to have a social conscience and civic responsibility, be cooperative and self-disciplined.

“Any rule breakers will be breaking the law.”

He added: “I want to stress, the supply of Hong Kong’s main food items … and daily goods are normal. There is no need to panic buy.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who announced an outline of the policy on Wednesday, was not present at the Friday briefing.

Matthew Cheung says there is no need to panic buy. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Under the policy, anyone coming into Hong Kong from the mainland faces a mandatory 14-day quarantine, and the same applies to those who have travelled there within the past 14 days. The government believed it would discourage people from crossing the border, but critics feared people on the mainland would continue to come to Hong Kong for medical treatment.

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Those wanting to enter the city will be required to fill out a forms with their address and contact information to facilitate the quarantine measures.

Travellers with visas or permits valid for less than 14 days will be barred from entering Hong Kong.

Only those with no symptoms would be allowed to stay and go into quarantine, during which time they would not be allowed to leave Hong Kong. Residents must stay at home, while non-locals would be confined at hotels – at their own expense – or one of the government’s three quarantine centres.

Sophia Chan says there will be random check on those under quarantine. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee said there would be random checks and phone calls to see if those under quarantine were staying put.

“The whole idea is for this person to stay at home and not to go out, so that in case they carry any virus, it will not be transmitted to the rest of the community,” Chan said.

People would be able to arrange for their family members to bring them food, she added.

Officials did not address questions as to how immigration officers could verify if those flying into Hong Kong from overseas had recently visited the mainland, or what would happen if non-locals ordered to be quarantined were turned away by their hotels.

Hong Kong International Airport, meanwhile, will segregate all mainland China flights from other international services, as it steps up scrutiny of travellers with stricter quarantine measures enforced by the authorities to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, the Post has learned.

Planes coming from and going to the mainland will depart and arrive at remote parking stands at the airport.

Arrivals will be bused into the terminal then separated from those passengers in transit. Those wishing to enter Hong Kong will be subject to medical screening before heading for 14 days of quarantine. Departing passengers will also be bused to the plane from a dedicated part of the airport.

Those refusing quarantine will be held and sent back to the mainland. Aircraft crew are exempt.

The changes will also come into effect at midnight on Friday.

With the sharp drop in aircraft traffic, the north satellite concourse – part of the airport terminal which regularly handles mainland flights – would also be temporarily shuttered.

The new quarantine measures were first announced by Lam on Wednesday, after more Hong Kong residents who had not recently travelled to the mainland were confirmed to be infected with the virus, implying local transmission.

But Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a private specialist in infectious disease, said the move to allow Hongkongers to self-quarantine was little better than doing nothing at all.

“How could officers identify if people in quarantine are truly at home?” Tsang asked, noting that many people do not have landlines and rely on mobile numbers only.

Even if random checks are being performed by officers, Tsang said those quarantined could easily sneak out during non-working hours, when those checks were less likely to happen.

Tsang also took the government to task for allowing family members to come and go from home while sharing the space with potentially infected relatives. Better, he said, to have other household members move to a relative’s house or a hotel until the 14 days was up.

“You can’t tell whether you are a carrier of the virus,” Tsang said. “A person might not notice he or she has been infected, but the transmission might have already happened during the incubation period.”

While the government has experimented with tracking wristbands for some under quarantine, there are no plans to issue them to those considered low-risk.

As of 10.50pm on Friday, 26 cases had been identified in Hong Kong.

Only hours earlier, Director of Health Dr Constance Chan had confirmed the city’s 25th reported coronavirus case, a 58-year-old man who split his time between Zhuhai – which neighbours Macau – and Hong Kong. The man developed a fever and cough on February 4 while in Zuhai, and returned to Hong Kong the next day. He went to see a private doctor on February 6 and was admitted to North District Hospital the same day. His condition was stable as of Friday evening.

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According to the Hospital Authority, three infected patients are in critical condition, while another 58 suspected cases were reported in the 24 hours until Friday noon.

On Tuesday, the city recorded its first death linked to the virus when a 39-year-old man with underlying health issues died from a sudden cardiac arrest.

Following Lam’s announcement of the quarantine plan on Wednesday, there was a surge in the number of people crossing the border.

On Thursday, the city’s ports handled 145,141 passengers, up 31 per cent from Wednesday’s 111,004.

The number of arrivals also increased by 40 per cent during the same time.

Some 11,000 mainland visitors entered Hong Kong on Thursday, up from 8,760 the day before.

At Shenzhen Bay port, a land checkpoint linking Hong Kong and the mainland, overall usage increased 93 per cent from Wednesday to Thursday.

The number of Hong Kong residents arriving at the crossing more than doubled from 16,387 on Wednesday to 38,920 on Thursday, while the number of mainland visitors entering the city via the port also increased from 2,378 to 4,813.

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