Hong Kong is banning flights from eight countries including the U.S. and U.K. for two weeks from Jan. 8, in a drastic tightening of rules as it rushes to plug holes that have seen the highly infectious omicron COVID-19 variant break through the city’s defenses.
The bans last until Jan. 20 and also apply to flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The government is also tightening social-distancing measures, banning evening dining-in at restaurants and closing venues including bars, gyms and bathhouses, Lam said, warning there may be “silent transmission” of the virus in the community. The moves come amid fears that the city’s low vaccination rate makes it uniquely vulnerable to a new outbreak as omicron arrives.
The flight bans are a sharp escalation in travel curbs that have already left the city largely cut off from the world, while keeping it mostly virus-free for over seven months. The government had already suspended two dozen individual airline routes in less than six weeks, throwing holiday travel into chaos.
The latest of those specific suspensions included routes flown by Hong Kong’s embattled flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., as well as Air India Ltd., Air Canada, Thai Airways International Pcl and Philippines AirAsia.
Infected travelers are being sent to North Lantau Hospital for treatment and isolation, but the facility appears to be reaching capacity already.
Garry Frenklah, a salesman who tested positive upon return from Australia, said staff told him he was put in a ward with three other COVID patients because there wasn’t enough space. The 54-year-old, who is not showing any symptoms, had asked to at least be put with other asymptomatic patients as he has a compromised immune system.
Staffing has also been an issue, Frenklah said, with sample collection — scheduled for 8 a.m. — more than an hour late, breakfast only provided at 10 a.m., and no doctors available at night.
The Hospital Authority, which operates public hospitals in Hong Kong, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“It’s a system that’s been cobbled together in total haste without any consideration or safeguards, and it’s been carried out by people who are genuinely well-meaning and sympathetic but who are just cogs in the wheel,” he said.
In addition to the individual flight route bans, carriers worldwide are scrapping services to Hong Kong due to the crackdown.
In the past week, 159 flights into the Asian financial hub have been pulled from this month’s schedules alone, cutting planned inbound flights in January to 872, according to aviation data company Cirium. Smaller cuts have been made to monthly schedules stretching out to at least November, the data show.
Based in Hong Kong, Cathay is bearing the brunt of the government’s strict COVID countermeasures and a COVID Zero strategy that is increasingly strained as omicron spreads around the globe, accounting for the majority of new infections. The airline has had seven routes suspended since Christmas Day, including London, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The latest ban is for Cathay’s Seoul services after three passengers tested positive on arrival from the South Korean capital on Jan. 2.
Cathay shares dropped toward the end of trading in Hong Kong, sliding 2%, the most in a month.