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A man linked to a small outbreak of a mutant strain of coronavirus in Hong Kong was remanded in custody on Monday, after being arrested at the weekend on suspicion of lying to health authorities.
The 30-year-old, who arrived in the SAR from Dubai in March, was found to be infected after he completed 21 days of quarantine and went out into the city. Authorities said last month that he most likely caught the variant strain while staying at the hotel, in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The man's 31-year-old girlfriend was later found to have contracted the virus, as did three foreign domestic helpers whose infections were later traced back to the couple.
The man is accused of knowingly providing false information to officials – an offence under the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation – by claiming that he only visited Tsim Sha Tsui and Jordan on April 10 and 11 and did not attend any gatherings.
During a mention hearing at Kowloon City Magistracy, prosecutors said the defendant only told immigration officers this month that he had also visited Discovery Bay, Tong Fuk, Citygate Outlets and the Novotel Citygate hotel in Tung Chung.
The court refused to grant bail and adjourned the hearing to May 31.
The man’s girlfriend was also arrested on Saturday. She is accused of failing to provide information for contact-tracing. She was in hospital and did not attend the court hearing. Her case will be heard on Friday at the earliest.
Lawmakers on Monday gave their backing to a government proposal to expand the Legislative Council complex, to accommodate more members added to the body through Beijing’s electoral overhaul.
Legco will grow from 70 members to 90 following this December’s election, but the number of directly elected seats will shrink from 35 to 20.
President Andrew Leung said the price tag for the expansion is not yet known.
But work is expected to start in the middle of next year, and the three-year project will see several storeys added to the existing building.
Leung said his colleagues in a Legco Commission meeting had decided building a new wing near to the complex would be very difficult, and on-site expansion was the most cost-effective idea.
This approach means that half of the council’s members will have to find temporary offices, rather than working within the building.
"There's a real possibility that we need to rent offices for 45 members,” Leung told reporters. “However, we will look at different options... whether we can rent or whether the members do their own rental arrangements.”
He said the Legco Commission will meet again before the end of the month to discuss the options.
Andrew Wan on Monday resigned as a district councillor, the latest pro-democracy figure to throw in the towel while behind bars awaiting trial.
Wan is one of scores of people accused of breaching the national security law by holding primary polls to choose candidates for Legco elections.
"Besides the security charge, I also face nine other charges which the authorities abusively slapped on me. And the fact that I'm on remand, there's really no way to continue to serve as a councillor," the former lawmaker said on social media.
He said this brings an end to his 18 years in public office in Kwai Tsing, but it doesn't mean he has stopped caring about public affairs.
At least 15 other district councillors had already resigned in recent months for a variety of reasons, some saying they would not take a planned oath of allegiance to the government, and others complaining there is no room left for representative democracy in Hong Kong.
Several of the former councillors; Lam Cheuk-ting, Gary Fan, Roy Tam, Henry Wong, Fergus Leung and Li Ka-tat, are facing the same subversion charge as Wan. The offence carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
On Sunday, Tai Po councillors Dalu Lin and Max Wu – who are not in custody – announced that they were stepping down, with Wu also quitting his party, the Neo Democrats.
"There's absolutely no more room for councillors.....although with much reluctance, you have to admit the era for representative democracy has come to an end," Wu wrote in his departure note.
Legco is expected to pass a bill this Wednesday which will lay out what it means to "uphold the Basic Law" and to "pledge allegiance to the SAR". There will be a disqualification mechanism for those in public office who fail to meet the requirements.
District councillors from the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood say they will take the oath, in order to continue to "defend the councils".
People recently released from Penny's Bay quarantine camp as part of the government's policy reversal have spoken of their horror at the conditions inside, saying they were left without basic necessities, couldn't seek medical care, and were poisoned by the food provided.
The authorities had ordered thousands of people into quarantine, after infections involving a mutant strain of Covid were found in their buildings. They were told they would have to stay for 21 days, but on Friday the government announced that all those who tested negative for the virus would be freed.
A woman from Tsuen Wan, who gave her name as Renee, told a radio programme that her family had suffered while being held at Penny's Bay.
"If I knew that they were going to feed us such food, I would have requested my whole family go to Stanley Prison, where at least we wouldn't get food poisoning," she said.
"We didn't expect the food to taste good, but at least they could give us clean and hot meals. If they didn’t change the disease prevention policy, we would have suffered for 21 days. They can’t just feed Hong Kong people dog food and give them food poisoning."
Tsuen Wan district councillor Chiu Yan-loy told an RTHK programme that he had received dozens of similar complaints about the conditions at the quarantine camp on Lantau.
These included suspected food poisoning, a lack of toilet paper, and that no doctors were available at night, he said.
Chiu also said that around 10 families remained stuck at the quarantine facility over the weekend because of problems with paperwork.
"The incidents reflect it's very chaotic, administratively. Don't forget the occupancy last week was only half of its capacity. Is the government capable of ensuring the operation of the facility if the occupancy hits the peak?" he questioned.
At the weekend, the Department of Health said it would follow up on the complaints about the food at Penny's Bay, and would look into whether the contractor involved had failed to meet the required standards.
Microbiologist Siddharth Sridhar on Monday said it was "lucky" that there had not been an outbreak of a more infectious strain of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, but added authorities must keep a close eye on the situation.
The University of Hong Kong expert said he believed the situation was now "stable", but given the long incubation period of the virus, authorities should remain cautious.
There had earlier been a scare when a man who flew in from Dubai was found to have a strain of coronavirus with the N501Y mutation, after he had completed his 21-day quarantine in April.
His girlfriend and three domestic helpers living in different districts were subsequently confirmed to have the same strain of the virus, and it was feared that it had spread in the community as officials initially could not find any links between the patients.
It later emerged that the cases were linked after all, and the Dubai arrival and his girlfriend were on Saturday arrested for allegedly lying to authorities trying to trace their contacts.
Sridhar told an RTHK programme that wearing masks probably helped reduce transmission, but added: "We may not be lucky next time. It may cause an outbreak in the community."
Meanwhile, he welcomed the government's plan to relax quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated people, saying the move is worth trying to boost inoculation rates.
He said it’s unlikely that coronavirus will disappear on its own and the only way out of the pandemic is achieving herd immunity through vaccination.
Hong Kong is experiencing the “worst of both worlds” with relaxed quarantine policies for some people but no increase in vaccine uptake, a public health expert said on Monday, as he called for more incentives for people to get inoculated against Covid-19.
"Now that every adult's got the opportunity to be vaccinated, then I think it's really maybe justifiable now to think about vaccine passports to incentivise vaccine uptake,” University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling told RTHK. “That strategy worked very well in Israel."
He said quarantine policies could be further relaxed for people who have been vaccinated, even though there was a “very low risk that a vaccinated person might still get infected, and might still then be part of a chain of transmission in the community.”
“But we … trade it off against a higher vaccine coverage that ultimately protects the community to a much greater extent and is sustainable,” Cowling explained.
He also suggested the government consider reducing close-contact and arrival quarantine requirements for children of fully vaccinated people, to boost the inoculation rate.
"If it was relaxed for vaccinated people, there would still be an issue with their children. If they came with children, the children have to go into quarantine and then the parents have to go anyway so maybe think about relaxing that as well."
Cowling said getting more people vaccinated was the city’s pathway back to normality, and the government should be thinking of more incentives as well, as “the GDP loss every month that we are in, our status quo right now, must be phenomenal.”
“We’re going see other countries increasingly get high vaccine coverage and then returning to normal life, and we’re going to be left behind,” he warned.
Just over 16 percent of the population has had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine since the city’s inoculation drive started in late February.
Cowling said the SAR has the capacity to vaccinate up to 50,000 people a day, but the most Hong Kong had managed was around 30,000 a day.
He acknowledged there was a lot of concern about the side effects of Covid-19 vaccines, but said they are generally very mild.
Serious side effects are “very, very rare”, Cowling said, adding they may be coincidental events not associated with vaccination.
Last updated: 2021-05-10 HKT 12:23
The government has thanked the hundreds of thousands of foreign domestic helpers who took a compulsory Covid-19 test, ahead of Sunday's deadline.
The order, seen by some as discriminatory, was made late last month to combat a mutated variant cluster linked to an arrival from Dubai.
In a statement, the government said between May 1 and 6 pm on Sunday, nearly 340,000 helpers had been tested, while 40,000 had received two Covid jabs and were exempt.
Separately, the government says nearly 1.1 million have had at least one Covid jab here, just over 16 percent of the population.
Hong Kong reported no local Covid cases on Sunday, though there was an imported case from Argentina.
Two in five teachers say they are contemplating leaving the education sector, with many citing increasing political pressure as a major reason.
That’s the finding of a survey conducted by the pro-democracy Professional Teachers' Union, which polled 1,178 secondary, primary and kindergarten teachers between April 29 and May 5.
Nineteen percent of the respondents said they were making plans to resign or retire early, while 21 percent said they intended to quit but had yet to make any concrete plans.
The union said most of those who are thinking about giving up their profession are teachers with between 21 and 30 years of experience, and it warned that this may lead to a shortage of experienced, middle-ranking teachers in future, which could affect teaching quality.
Seventy-one percent of those who said they might quit cited increasing political pressure as a major reason, with 55 percent saying they were also dissatisfied with the city's social environment. Some 38 percent said they were unhappy with education policies.
Union chairman Fung Wai-wah said a separate survey carried out by the union last year showed that the government and the Education Bureau were the major sources of political pressure for many teachers, and the problem became more serious after the national security law came into force.
“After the law was implemented, I think more teachers think that the political situation is going worse. And also the political pressure from the Education Bureau is increasing," he told RTHK’s Jimmy Choi.
Fung urged the authorities to give teachers and educational professionals the autonomy to decide on education policies.
He also called on them to refrain from exerting pressure on frontline teachers through means such as de-registering teachers – effectively barring them from the profession – or accepting anonymous complaints.
Last updated: 2021-05-09 HKT 18:23
After an initial rush to get tested for the coronavirus, few foreign helpers were seen at testing centres on Sunday – the deadline for a mandatory testing order for all migrant domestic workers.
Hong Kong's 370,000 helpers were given nine days to get tested after three helpers came down with a more infectious strain of the virus last month.
At the test centres at Chater Garden and Edinburgh Place in Central, only a handful of people were queuing up for a free swab test.
One helper, Rosemary, told RTHK she just couldn’t afford the time to queue up for hours for a test last week, and it’s a pleasant surprise that she could get it done in a matter of minutes in the end.
"Last week, there were so many people – that's why I cannot come, I don't have time. I went back and tried to make a booking, but cannot. That's why I wait for the last day," she said.
Another helper who took the test on Sunday, Jackie, said the process was fast and smooth, and she didn't have a problem with having nine days to get tested.
"Because there're a lot of places you can go to have a test. I think it's convenient," she said.
But Hannah, a helper who took the test last week, said if the government were to impose similar orders again, more time should be given.
"Only Sundays are our free time. We spent eight, ten hours queuing last week. This is not proper treatment for us," she said, adding that she thinks the policy of making tests compulsory only for helpers is somewhat discriminatory.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said on Sunday that the majority of the SAR's helpers have complied with the test order.
A survey has found that an overwhelming majority of respondents are not motivated to undergo inoculation against Covid-19, despite the government’s “vaccine bubble” initiatives that offer relaxed social distancing rules for those who’ve received the jabs.
Under the “vaccine bubble” scheme, karaoke bars, saunas, and party rooms are allowed to reopen as long as all staff and customers have had at least the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while restaurants can also set up specific areas to seat more customers per table.
The Patients and Healthcare Professionals Rights Association interviewed 718 unvaccinated adults in April, and 88 percent said they would not get the jab simply to take advantage of the relaxed rules.
More than three quarters of respondents also said they were worried that they might not be physically fit to get vaccinated even though they did not have any chronic conditions.
Dr Jeffrey Pong, a convenor of the group, said the survey shows that many people “worried too much” about the possible side effects of vaccination.
“When we look into the real reported events list, most of them are actually quite minor, including chest discomfort, headaches, slight fever and so on,” he said.
He said officials should step up education and inform the public as quickly as possible of the findings of any investigations into deaths following vaccination.
Among the respondents, 35 percent said they had not yet decided whether to receive the vaccine, but Pong warned against a wait-and-see approach, saying the pandemic could worsen quickly if a mutant variant spreads in the community.
“The virus is actually getting more and more deceiving, they are more cunning. So in a way when the virus mutated, they are able to infect more people…there might be people with very very minimal symptoms walking around,” he said.
The group said that while introducing vaccine bubble measures is a good start, the government could also send medical teams to administer vaccines to staff at large corporations, open more vaccination centres at public and private clinics, and extend their opening hours.