Hong Kong health authorities have sent 10 transit passengers – stranded at the airport for the past five days – to a local quarantine centre amid public health concerns, as the group had travelled on the same flight as 26 others previously found to be infected with Covid-19.
Confirming an earlier Post report, a Department of Health spokesman said the group, which had attempted to travel from Dubai to mainland China despite a prohibition on transits to mainland cities, had been sent to an official quarantine facility at Chai Wan Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village.
The latest development came just seven hours after the Post contacted the department with inquiries about the travellers’ status.
The spokesman added the department had only become aware of the situation on Wednesday, but could not say if the travellers would have to undergo a full 14-day isolation.
A government source, meanwhile, said the group would be given Covid-19 tests, adding that poor communication between the health department and Airport Authority led to the delayed response.
The authority earlier confirmed that 11 passengers on Emirates flight 380 had sought to transit to the mainland but did not have boarding passes for their onward flights.
As of Wednesday evening, 10 of the group had refused an offer to be flown back to Dubai.
“The airline has offered to arrange the 11 passengers’ return to their port of origin. [The authority] understands that one of the passengers took an Emirates flight back to Dubai on June 24, while the others have not yet accepted the return arrangement,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.
“It is the responsibility of airlines to understand entry restrictions and quarantine requirements of different destinations to avoid passengers being stranded at HKIA.”
Meanwhile, police said the Airport Authority filed a report on Wednesday after one of the stranded passengers claimed he was wanted on the mainland.
A police spokesman said they received the report at 5.55pm and sent officers to the scene, but no arrest was made as the man was not wanted in Hong Kong and the force had no jurisdiction.
In a statement, Emirates said the group “attempted to transit to mainland China, which is not allowed under current travel restrictions. The respective onward carriers refused to accept the passengers.”
They also confirmed the 10 remaining passengers had been offered tickets on the next scheduled flight back to Dubai. “We will also continue to work closely with the Airport Authority and all relevant parties to resolve the situation,” an airline spokeswoman said.
Emirates later revealed it was temporarily suspending passenger services to Pakistan altogether in light of the large number of passengers who tested positive for Covid-19 in Hong Kong after arriving aboard flight 380.
“We are coordinating closely with the various authorities and will review and implement any required additional measures to satisfy all parties before we resume services from Pakistan. The health and safety of our crew, customers and communities remains our top priority,” the airline said in a statement.
While Hong Kong resumed transit flight services on June 1, the mainland has remained off-limits for transfers. Given that prohibition, it was not immediately known why the stranded passengers were allowed to board the flight in Dubai.
On Monday, the Centre for Health Protection confirmed 26 passengers on the Saturday flight, residents returning from Pakistan, had tested positive for Covid-19, the highest number of imported infections yet to arrive by air.
But Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the centre’s communicable disease branch, has previously said the risk of in-flight transmission of the disease was low.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert from Chinese University, shared that view, saying the passengers would have worn masks and had minimal interactions.
“A plane during the flight would have an excellent ventilation system that can filter air particles 10 to 20 times an hour,” he said.
Hui explained that Hong Kong and the World Health Organisation define “close contacts” on a flight as anyone sitting in the two seats directly in front of or behind the infected persons as well as the two seats directly to the left and right.
But Dr Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said the situation was “concerning”, as in-flight transmission “could not be ruled out”.
Transmissions could also take place within the airport, especially in such shared facilities as toilets and lounges, if the stranded passengers carried the virus, he said.
Leung suggested the Hong Kong government tighten air traffic rules, allowing only passengers who have received a negative Covid-19 test result before boarding to use the city’s transit services.
“Otherwise, the public health risks of transit services would outweigh the economic benefits they bring,” he said.
Hong Kong reported no locally transmitted coronavirus infections on Wednesday, according to the Centre for Health Protection, extending the city's streak of such days to 11.
Two imported cases were recorded, however, bringing the city’s overall tally to 1,179, with six related deaths. Both new cases had returned from the Philippines.
Separately, a Tuen Mun Hospital spokesman on Wednesday revealed that water had leaked from the bathroom of a paediatric isolation ward housing Covid-19 patients earlier in the week onto the male surgical ward directly below, leading to 18 patients being moved to other rooms.
One male patient who had droplets land on his glasses will be isolated for 14 days and placed under medical surveillance for two weeks after, while another hit on his ankle will undergo medical surveillance for 28 days.
Before HKIA reopened the airport to transit passengers on June 1, the Airport Authority gathered airlines to brief them on the strict rules governing the resumption of transfer service.
“Airlines have the utmost responsibility in ensuring, at the point of check-in at the origin ports, that transit passengers will be accepted at the final destinations,” the authority said in an internal presentation to airlines on May 29.
“It is the responsibility of the airlines to conduct all necessary verification at the origin ports.”
In the first phase, only transit flights operated by the same airline group were allowed to handle transfer passengers – meaning only Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines qualified.
On June 15, rules were eased to allow different airlines to accept transit passengers flying on one ticket, as long as they had been checked through from their departure point with boarding passes issued.
Airlines were also required to ensure travellers met entry requirements for their final destination and the connecting time between flights was less than 24 hours, among other measures.