Hong Kong faces ‘third wave’ of pandemic

Government staff to work from home again and exams postponed as confirmed cases rise

by Jeff Pao
Hong Kong faces ‘third wave’ of pandemic
Tram passengers in Hong Kong wear face masks as a precautionary measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus, March 12, 2020. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

The Hong Kong government said its civil servants will start working from home again from Monday while Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams are being postponed due to the drastic rise in the number of coronavirus infections in the city.

The situation in Hong Kong is now getting “critical” as many people return to the SAR from areas of the world that have been hard hit by the pandemic, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Saturday.

“The 7.5 million Hong Kong people have effectively and safely sailed through two waves of epidemic. Now we are facing a third wave … we have to adjust and go back to measures that will ensure more social distancing,” Lam said.

From now on, returnees will be tested for Covid-19 even if they don’t show any symptoms, RTHK reported. Those with symptoms of the virus flying into Hong Kong have been tested since Friday at two facilities on Lantau.

The number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in Hong Kong is “quite scary”, as the city added another 17 confirmed cases, plus another 20 people who have tested positive for the virus in initial tests, on Saturday, said Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection.

As of Saturday, the total number of infections rose to 273 – almost double the figure from a week ago.

Civil servants

A large proportion of Hong Kong’s 180,000 or so civil servants first started working from home on January 29, with only those providing essential services required to go into the office as normal.

Many private companies took their cue from the government, telling their staff not to come in if they didn’t need to, or staggering shifts to reduce to contact between employees.

On March 2, due to an easing epidemic situation in the city, most government departments ended their work-from-home measures, echoing the Chinese government’s call to help promote the resumption of production and operation in order to maintain economic growth. 

However, from Monday, civil servants will start to work from home again, according to a statement. Many government departments have not yet informed their staff about the details of the latest work-from-home arrangement as the decision was made so quickly. As well, government-run sports centers, libraries and museums which recently re-opened are to shut again.

The DSE exams will be pushed back by four weeks to April 24 and oral exams for both Chinese and English have been cancelled completely. The postponement affects some 50,000 students in the city.

The suggested date for schools to reopen on April 20 has now been dropped, and they are to remain closed “until further notice.” 

Lam rejected the idea of a complete ban on non-residents entering the city, saying a series of travel restrictions imposed by other locations means the SAR won’t receive as many visitors.

She said about 600 non-residents came into the city on Thursday and a similar number on Friday. Two-thirds of them were from Taiwan and Macau — two areas that are exempt from a recently introduced rule requiring all arrivals to undergo 14 days of self-quarantine.

On Saturday, Macau warned its citizens not to travel to Hong Kong due to the “serious” coronavirus in the SAR, although it says it has no plans to implement any restrictions on Hong Kong visitors for the time being. Macau is currently the only place in the world where Hong Kong people can travel without ending quarantine.

Meanwhile, Taipei has issued a Level 3 warning for the entire world – its highest alert level – advising Taiwanese people against all non-essential travel. The warning covers Hong Kong and Macau mainly due to an increase in the number of imported Covid-19 cases in the two cities.

Currently, Hong Kong does not require arrivals from Taiwan to undergo quarantine, but Taiwan requires all visitors to the island to self-isolate for 14 days.