Hong Kong suspends flights from eight countries over fears of fifth wave

Hong Kong on Wednesday announced a series of strict pandemic control measures, including the suspension of flights from the United States and seven other countries, as it struggled to control an emerging Omicron outbreak.

The new measures will strengthen the city’s isolation from the outside world and mark a return to the strict restrictions of the early days of the pandemic. Hong Kong has largely contained the coronavirus, but the arrival of Omicron threatens to trigger the city’s fifth wave of pandemic.

“In view of the very dire situation of the pandemic, we must seize this critical moment,” Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, said at a press conference announcing the new rules.

The day before, Ms. Lam had indicated that no new social distancing measure was expected. But the spread of Omicron, including infecting someone with no clear connection to the city’s first Omicron cluster, has obviously forced a change.

“We need to contain the pandemic to make sure that there is not again a major epidemic in the community,” she said. “We are running with Omicron, a highly transmissible variant.”

The restrictions will make it even more difficult to enter Hong Kong, which already has one of the longest quarantines in the world – up to three weeks. Under the new rules, flights will be temporarily banned from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United States for two weeks from Saturday. People who have recently visited these countries will also be prohibited from traveling by other routes.

Major public events will be canceled and several public places – including bars, gyms and karaoke lounges – will be closed. Visits to hospitals and nursing homes will also be banned for two weeks. Meals in restaurants will be prohibited after 6 p.m. But the government has decided not to stop in-person teaching or force public servants to work from home.

Hong Kong recorded a growing number of imported cases of the Omicron variant, with 133 on Tuesday.

“If this continues, there will be enormous pressure on our quarantine and healthcare facilities,” said Dr Ronald Lam, Hong Kong director of health.

The Omicron outbreak in the city has been attributed to a Cathay Pacific flight attendant who ignored quarantine requirements after returning from the United States. He had dinner at the Moon Palace restaurant in the upscale Fashion Walk mall on December 27, infecting his father and at least one other person.

Ms Lam said the measures were probably “the most decisive, swift, targeted and comprehensive in the past two years so that we can cut the chains of transmission as soon as possible”.

The restrictions came as health officials in Hong Kong on Wednesday ordered a Royal Caribbean cruise ship to return to port early as authorities traced contact with a Covid-19 patient.

Nine people who boarded the ship, the Spectrum of the Seas, on January 2 came into contact with the patient, who did not board the ship, the government said in a statement. People were asked to quarantine themselves as soon as they were identified as contacts, although they had previously tested negative.

John yoon contributed reports.

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