Only a third of quarantined new arrivals could activate the wristbands designed to keep tabs on their whereabouts in Hong Kong, the government admitted on Friday, raising doubts over the efficacy of the home-isolation system intended to stem the tide of imported coronavirus infections.
Victor Lam Wai-kiu, the government’s chief information officer, revealed that of the about 6,000 wristbands given out since quarantine measures were extended to cover all travellers from overseas, more than 2,000 had been activated by the end of Thursday.
He apologised for the issues with the implementation.
Thousands of travellers arriving at the city’s airport had been given the devices – intended to make sure they stayed at a designated address – and were asked to download a mobile app connecting to them. But many complained they had not received an SMS message that comes with a password to initiate the app.
“We are sorry because the workflow had to be implemented within a very short period of time, so there is some delay. So some people who arrived in Hong Kong yesterday could not receive the SMS message. We will send the messages to them today, bit by bit,” Lam told a radio programme on Friday.
Brushing off worries the delay would mean travellers extending their 14-day quarantine period at home, he said the isolation would start the day they arrived, not when they received the message.
Hong Kong is facing a resurgence of imported coronavirus infections. About 92% of the 88 new cases in the past two weeks had links to overseas travel.
On Thursday, 16 new cases were confirmed, taking the city’s total to 208.
Starting from Thursday, all arrivals from overseas must undergo 14-day self-isolation at home or in a quarantine centre, followed by two weeks of medical surveillance. Arrivals from mainland China were already required to self-isolate at home.
After visiting the airport, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Thursday night that the quarantine measures’ expansion had been generally smooth. But she warned the threat of transmission of the virus to Hong Kong from overseas was huge.
Victor Lam said officers needed some time to put data from the physical quarantine orders into the computer system, so authorities would add more manpower to carry out the work.
And wristband trouble was not the only passenger gripe.
One traveller, Vik, who arrived at Hong Kong airport on Thursday morning from Myanmar, said her fiancée, who had a mild cough and a sore throat, was taken to a small waiting room at the airport. He waited about 30 hours to be tested, with only crackers to eat. He was eventually tested at noon on Friday.
“When I asked what airport officials were doing about this, their only answer was ‘wait a while’,” the beauty therapist, 30, said, adding that there was “no reassurance that there will be any food at the hospital or resolutions in sight”.
She said the government could have provided better conditions for people waiting to be tested at the airport.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, speaking on the same radio show as Victor Lam, criticised the government’s handling of the situation.
“To what the government has done in these two weeks, I give zero marks,” he said.
Tien said he understood the officers had not tested the wristbands in stock before, though Victor Lam earlier said they had tested the system for travellers at the port of the city’s cross-border bridge.
“If they have tested it at the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, then why now are there such embarrassments?” Tien asked.
He called on the government to follow Macau’s lead and ban non-residents from entering the city from abroad.
But Carrie Lam on Tuesday said her administration would not impose such a ban, because it needed to allow the city to continue and business to resume, lest the economy take more of a hit than it already has.
From Friday, airport arrivals with upper respiratory symptoms will be sent to test centres at the nearby AsiaWorld-Expo or North Lantau Hospital for viral tests, and to await the results.
Health authorities estimated that it would take about half a day to a day to arrange the delivery and tests of specimens.
Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, approved of the new measure, saying it could help reduce the pressure of other public hospitals.
But Tien said facilities would not be able to cater to all who needed the tests, adding that the government still had not talked to the 14 hotels which wanted to provide quarantine rooms for new arrivals.
Separately, commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah told reporters, however, that officials had been in touch with the hotel sector, noting businesses might not be willing to provide whole buildings for quarantine purposes.
He said the government would welcome the sector’s help if members felt comfortable to serve some travellers, but the establishments had to meet requirements of the Department of Health. — South China Morning Post