Hong Kong is rushing to plug holes that have seen the highly infectious omicron Covid-19 variant finally break through the city’s defenses, banning five more individual airline routes — including ones from Seoul, Vancouver and Delhi — after discovering infected passengers.
Embattled flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., as well as Air India Ltd., Air Canada, Thai Airways International Pcl and Philippines AirAsia have had routes suspended from Jan. 4 to Jan. 17, the government said. That’s the most flights Hong Kong has banned in a day since omicron emerged in November.
Authorities have suspended two dozen routes in less than six weeks, throwing holiday travel into chaos. Hong Kong, which has been largely virus-free for over seven months, has some of the strictest travel curbs in the world in order to prevent imported infection. But there are fears the city’s low vaccination rate makes it uniquely vulnerable to a new outbreak as omicron arrives.
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.