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Hong Kong leader warns harsher COVID-19 measures to come

/ 05:17 PM December 08, 2020

HONG KONG — Even as the new wave of the Covid-19 outbreak moves towards its peak, people in Hong Kong feel safe enough to be out and about, preparing for the festive season or enjoying the good weather, prompting the city’s leader to issue a grim warning and hint at tighter measures.

With a rebound in infections in the last two weeks of November, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday (Dec 8) warned that more patients who are younger are in critical conditions this time round.

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“Before this wave, the number of critical cases had dropped to a single digit. Now there is a sharp rise to 36, 40 patients in serious condition,” said Mrs Lam.

“More ICUs (intensive care units) have to be mobilized. Of the critical cases, six are under the age of 60 and two are under the age of 50. For serious cases, nine of them are under 60 and two of them are under 50.”

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She noted that in the last wave, most of those in serious and critical conditions were the elderly.

“From the observation of experts and our observation, it seems that the situation is more complicated, much, much more than the last one because we’re talking about different people of different jobs living in different districts all over the territory.

“The number of untraceable cases account for one third of the total number of confirmed cases,” Mrs Lam said.

On Monday (Dec 7), Hong Kong recorded 78 new infections, bringing its total to nearly 7,000, with 112 deaths. Of the new cases, 71 are local and 29 have unknown sources.

The seven-day moving average of unknown local cases has hit 27.7 as of Monday, over five times that of the threshold of five to restart the travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore.

In a sign of tougher measures to come, Mrs Lam said: “We all need to be mentally prepared about more measures being rolled out, first to reduce the flow of people… What we aim to do this time is to curb the number of people in the streets.”

The government is poised to further expand the work from home arrangement for civil servants, ban dine-in from 6pm and close gyms, sports centers and beauty parlors.

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At a briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said the new measures will be effective from Thursday (Dec 10) to Dec 23.

Offering more details, she said that dining-in at eateries will be banned from 6pm to 4.59am the next day. Outside of the banned hours, only two diners are allowed at each table, local media HK01 reported.

The city’s streets have remained busy most part of the day in recent weeks in a sign that business continues as usual, as people go about their daily routine. The closure of leisure premises such as cinemas, karaoke lounges, bars and pubs is among the few hints of the pandemic’s impact.

Come nightfall, it is lights out for the city of nightlife as eateries shutter from 8pm or 9pm with a government ban on dining-in services from 10pm.

Over the weekend, checks by The Straits Times found crowds either out doing a spot of Christmas shopping, trying to snag a now over-priced Christmas tree, as celebrations are destined to be at home with party rooms’ forced closures, or families out enjoying the good weather at picnics in parks.

When asked, Professor Ben Cowling, an infectious disease expert from the University of Hong Kong, said he is more concerned about indoor crowds than outdoor crowds.

“It will be important for people to modify their behaviors again if we are to get over this fourth wave soon. Social distancing has been vital in bringing our previous waves to an end,” he noted.

These developments come on the back of the government raising the fine for breaching social distancing measures to HK$5,000 (S$862) from HK$2,000 from Friday (Dec 11), among other previously tightened rules such as capping public gatherings to two and the forced closures of cinemas and mahjong clubs.

Officials are also mandating that specific groups undergo free tests, such as those in the dance club cluster and most recently, taxi drivers who plan to work from Christmas through to late January.

On Sunday (Dec 6), health authorities said they had to move about 100 people who were being quarantined at Asia World Expo – where Covid-19 patients with milder conditions are now placed – into different halls. This came after a worker at the temporary treatment facility was confirmed as infected.

There is also an outbreak at Kwai Shing West Estate, a public housing estate, with 15 cases detected. Local media reported the outbreak has sent some residents fleeing elsewhere.

The authorities on Monday said more than 1,000 residents have already submitted specimens for Covid-19 tests.

They added that three staff at the Centre of Health Protection got infected, one despite wearing full protective gear.

As at Monday, 70 percent of intensive care unit beds have been filled.

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