Four flights rescue 469 HKers but thousands still in Hubei

March 06, 2020 12:41
Airline personnel hand out air tickets to departing Hong Kong residents at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Thursday morning. Photo: ISD

Four charter flights have evacuated 469 Hong Kong residents from central China's Hubei province, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, in a two-day rescue operation that ended on Thursday.

Two of the flights arranged by the SAR government landed at the Hong Kong International Airport at around 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Thursday, bringing home 225 Hongkongers, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

They included 179 from Wuhan, the provincial capital, and the rest from other parts of the province. Among the passengers were a pregnant woman, seven Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination candidates, and 11 who are suffering from serious illnesses and requiring urgent medical treatments, the government said in a press release issued late Thursday night.

Two other flights on Wednesday carried 244 Hong Kong residents.

In Thursday's operation, the Hubei provincial government made sure those allowed to board the flights were not confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases, and did not have close contact with confirmed patients.

Before boarding, the passengers underwent four temperature checks "to ensure that they were not having fever, or developing abnormal vital signs, respiratory tract symptoms or other signs of infectious diseases, and they were also required to put on protective gear”, the press release said.

The government said the charter flights had been expected to evacuate 533 Hongkongers, but the two batches were 64 fewer than the predetermined number.

Speaking to media at the airport after returning from Hubei on Thursday, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said six people were not able to board the planes because they had fever, two people accompanying them chose not to board, and the rest of the 64 decided not to make the journey.

Staff from the Department of Health briefed the returnees about the quarantine arrangements and checked their body temperature upon disembarkation from the planes.

They were then taken to the quarantine center in Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan by pre-arranged coaches to undergo 14 days of quarantine observation.

They would undergo laboratory tests to ascertain they were negative of the virus, the government said.

Government staff who took part in the two-day mission included those from the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, the Immigration Department, the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority. All of them returned to Hong Kong by taking the chartered flights on Thursday.

It is estimated that some 3,500 Hong Kong residents are still stranded in Hubei, RTHK quoted Nip as saying.

The latest information showed 13 of them tested positive for Covid-19, including a nine-year-old girl who later recovered and was discharged from hospital, Nip added.

As to when they will be able to come home, Nip said the government will take into consideration the developments pertaining to the epidemic both in the mainland and Hong Kong, the capacity of the city's quarantine facilities and medical institutions, as well as the quarantine situation of the earlier batches of returnees.

All these factors will be prioritized according to urgency, he said.

Noting that evacuation missions need to be planned and coordinated with mainland authorities, Nip said it is unlikely that the next batch of charter flights can be arranged next week.

Asked how many of the returnees were really Hong Kong permanent residents, considering that quite a number of them can speak Putonghua fluently, Nip said all of those who took the charter flights have right of abode in Hong Kong.

But the government still has not determined the actual number of permanent residents among them, he added.

Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong urged the government to send charter flights to the airport in Enshi in southwest Hubei or other nearby airports next week, noting that it would take seven hours for stranded Hong Kong residents to get to Wuhan from Enshi by car.

There are about 210 Hongkongers in Enshi and 250 in Yichang.

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Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip (left) said it is unlikely that the next batch of charter flights to bring home Hong Kong residents stranded in Hubei can be arranged next week. Photo: RTHK