Hong Kong urged to curb inbound travel from India as nation linked to most of city’s 17 new Covid-19 cases

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Hong Kong recorded 17 new cases of Covid-19, none of them locally transmitted. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong recorded 17 new cases of Covid-19, none of them locally transmitted. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong officials are facing calls to tighten Covid-19 rules on travellers from India after they accounted for most of the city’s 17 new infections on Saturday, despite repeated flight bans imposed on its national carrier.

A government source said talks were ongoing with India’s representatives in Hong Kong to reduce the risk of infected passengers arriving in the city, as health experts raised questions over the reliability of testing in the country.

All of Saturday’s confirmed infections were imported, 11 of them arriving from India. Two of the new infections came from Indonesia, and one each from the Philippines, Pakistan, Morocco, and France. The city’s case tally is 5,237, with 105 related deaths.

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A 14-day ban on flights operated by Air India from Delhi, and Air Vistara from Chennai, took effect on Saturday, after they brought in 10 infected passengers on Thursday.

It was the third such suspension against Air India after the city’s health authorities barred the carrier from running Delhi-Hong Kong services from August 18 to 31, and September 20 to October 3.

But infected passengers continue to arrive from India despite the country appearing on Hong Kong’s high-risk list since late July, a designation requiring travellers from the country to present a negative PCR test result for Covid-19 before boarding a flight to the financial hub. Ten other nations, including Britain, the US, France and Nepal, are also on the list.

Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government adviser on the pandemic, said there could be inaccuracies with the tests conducted in India. “It remains unclear with the reliability and sources of the tests there,” he said.

Hui said some travellers might be at an early stage of infection when they received the pre-departure test in India, with the viral level possibly too low to be detected.

“If the technique for obtaining the specimen was not up-to-standard, the test result could also be affected too,” he said.

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India has the world’s second highest number of Covid-19 cases, with its daily tally of new infections ranging from about 55,000 to more than 70,000 over the past week.

Dr Leung Chi-chiu, a specialist in respiratory medicine, also said that the infection rate among travellers from India suggested there were problems with how testing was being performed there.

“If the repeated imposition of travel bans is not working, (the government) might need to consider tightening the measures,” Leung said.

Under the law, the city will ban a route for 14 days if at least five passengers on a single flight are identified as having the coronavirus by local health authorities on arrival, or if three or more are found to be infected on two consecutive flights from the same location.

Leung suggested reducing to three the number of infected passengers from a single flight triggering the ban, as well as extending the length of the flight suspension from two weeks to as many as four.

“We could give airlines more time to look into (improvement measures),” he said. “Even if no improvement was made eventually, such measures could reduce the amount of flights and alleviate the burden of imported infections.”

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Former president of the India Association Hong Kong, Mohan Chugani, urged the government to take tougher measures, as he was worried that the reputation of the Indian community in Hong Kong would be tarnished if the trend for imported cases continued.

The government could consider banning all flights from India for two weeks to prevent more imported cases coming in, he suggested.

“I feel that the Hong Kong government themselves should nominate a particular testing centre in India, which they feel is trustworthy. Only passengers holding the certificates (would be allowed to enter Hong Kong),” Chugani said, adding that the government should take the lead rather than leaving it to the airlines.

But Leung said it was difficult for the Hong Kong government to ensure the accuracy of test results produced from India, as well as to verify the standards of laboratories there.

A government source said they would continue to work with the consulate general of India in Hong Kong and relevant airlines to find ways to guard against the international spread of Covid-19.

Poonam Nanda, director of Nanda Travel agency, which arranges charter flights with Air Vistara, said she fully supported the government’s measures to protect the health of Hongkongers.

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Nanda said her agency had chosen a handful of reliable labs for its customers to use.

“Together with Vistara we have launched an inquiry into these isolated cases and will review the protocols enforced and apply additional measures to ensure a robust criteria that minimises risks,” she said, adding its next charter flight was postponed to early November subject to revised protocols and government approval.

Separately, Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, said none of the 11,000 samples tested at four temporary Hong Kong testing centres had tested positive for the coronavirus.

But she said the government would set up similar facilities in the future. The last of the centres, set up last week, was due to close on Sunday.

“This approach will provide more convenience to residents for testing. Also when there is an outbreak, we want to know the situation in a block, a construction site or a container terminal,” she said.

Additional reporting by Victor Ting

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