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Yau Tsim Mong district councillors on Friday demanded clarification from the government over whether it will impose a partial lockdown on the Covid-19-hit district, after a day of swirling rumours that some people could be confined to their homes unless they have proof of a recent negative Covid test.
The councillors called a press conference in the evening to relay the confusion and frustration experienced by residents, as officials failed to confirm or deny the widespread reports.
The vice-chairman of the Yau Tsim Mong District Council, Andy Yu, said deprived of credible information, many residents had rushed out during the day to stock up on food and other essential goods over fears that they might be stuck inside their homes for days.
Another councillor, Frank Ho, who represents the hard-hit area of Jordan North, said he has fielded multiple calls from tearful residents – one of whom was left fretting about an appointment for hemodialysis treatment the following morning.
“Most of them would like to know more about what’s happening and they still need to deal with the changes. Maybe some people… they have to go to work tomorrow, or they have to go to the hospital… so many different kinds [complaints] that we have received,” Ho said.
The councillors demanded a definitive answer from the government immediately, so residents know what to expect.
Many said a lockdown doesn’t make sense in any case, saying the problem may be environmental – with many run-down buildings in the area having ill-fitting, or altered pipes that may be helping to propagate the virus.
Prominent microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung of the University of Hong Kong had inspected one Covid-affected residential building on Friday, and said afterwards he thinks the virus may well have be spread via sewage pipes.
Councillor Suzanne Wu said the government’s approach is ‘ridiculous.’
“Trapping people in an environment that may have already been contaminated only increases the risk [of infection],” she said.
Forcing people to get negative Covid tests doesn’t make any sense either, she argued, because if the problem is environmental, residents would always at risk of catching the disease, no matter how many times they test negative.
She said councillors have been raising concerns about partially-open pipes in many buildings since February last year, only for them to be ignored.
Police said they have arrested seven people for their suspected involvement in an investment scam involving HK$110 million.
Officers said the seven have allegedly duped at least 182 victims into investing in projects involving low risk but attracting high returns, such as setting up elderly care homes.
They say the alleged scammers actually commenced work on some projects to make them seem legitimate, and gave the investors tours to these sites.
The alleged victims were told they’d become company directors, and could enjoy returns of up to 70 percent, the force said.
Most of the victims are said to be retirees or professionals who were eager to increase their savings.
One of them lost as much as HK$5.7 million.
The force urged people to be extra vigilant before making investments.
Representatives of the bar and karaoke industries have joined calls from owners of beauty parlours and cinemas for the government to allow their businesses to reopen ahead of the Chinese New Year.
The government ordered karaokes and bars to close again in early December as another wave of coronavirus infections struck the territory.
Speaking at a press conference, representatives from the sectors said they can't see how they will be able to survive if they aren’t allowed to reopen soon.
Leung Lap-yan, a bar operator, criticised the government for failing to offer any solutions that would allow bars to reopen safely.
He said the industry has complied with all the government’s infection control instructions and would be willing to take extra precautions if needed in order to be able to reopen.
Leung said bars could, for example, require their customers to use the government’s LeaveHomeSafe mobile app or ask them to fill in a health declaration form, so that any customer later found to be infected could be more easily traced.
Joan Law, a representative from the karaoke industry, said karaokes have now been forced to remain closed for more than 180 days since April last year.
She said the past year has been very difficult for karaoke owners, as they still need to pay rent, workers’ salaries and other expenses like copyright for songs.
Law said she believes with proper infection control measures in place, it wouldn’t be a problem for karaoke outlets to reopen.
She also said infectious disease expert Yuen Kwok-yung had inspected karaoke premises last year and concluded that the risk of Covid-19 spreading in such places is not high.
Catering sector lawmaker Tommy Cheung, meanwhile, said shutting down all bars and karaoke premises cannot really help contain the virus.
“People still go out, it’s just they don’t go to licensed premises. They go up to upstairs bars which don’t have a licence. They would go up to upstairs karaokes which don’t have a licence,” he said.
Cheung said instead of barring licensed businesses from operating, the government should step-up enforcement to tackle unlicensed businesses which often flout infection control rules.
Meanwhile, restaurant owners also urged the government to relax the current dining-in ban after 6pm and allow more people to be seated at a table, saying the Chinese New Year holiday is usually the period when they make most of their profits for the year.
Authorities ordered all residents living in flats C at Kensington Plaza in Jordan on Friday evening to evacuate amid a Covid-19 outbreak in the building.
The Department of Health said the residents will be taken to quarantine centres, while those with symptoms will be sent to hospital.
Health officials said at least 10 people from five different units – four of them facing the same direction – have been infected with the virus.
Leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, who inspected the building with other government officials on Friday, said there's a chance that the virus is being transmitted through leaking sewage pipes.
Another possible mode of transmission, he said, would be the so-called “chimney effect,” whereby air containing the coronavirus is sucked up to the roof and blown into flats on higher floors, causing environmental contamination.
Yuen said officials will carefully inspect the sewage facilities in the building once the residents have moved out, to ascertain the mode of transmission.
He added that he doesn’t see a need to evacuate residents of other flats in the building for the time being.
Last updated: 2021-01-22 HKT 21:17
Hong Kong's member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), Tam Yiu-chung, on Friday confirmed that local NPC deputies have written to Beijing, asking it to send Covid vaccines manufactured by mainland company, Sinopharm, to the SAR.
The Hong Kong government earlier said it had purchased coronavirus jabs from another mainland firm, Sinovac, as well as two types of vaccine developed by overseas drug companies.
During an online media briefing, Tam was asked whether the NPC members had bypassed the SAR government's official procedures by writing to the central government themselves to appeal for the Sinopharm vaccine.
He replied that the deputies just thought it would be nice for Hong Kong people to have more choices.
Sinopharm has said its vaccine is more than 70 percent effective, but it hasn't published any data in medical journals.
Tam said he received a shot of the vaccine in the capital on Wednesday, and has felt fine since, even sleeping better than he did before.
He added that the NPCSC meeting in Beijing this week had nothing on the agenda relating to Hong Kong.
Health officials say they will send experts to investigate a Covid-19 outbreak at Kensington Plaza in Jordan, after residents in several flats there came down with the coronavirus.
This came as Hong Kong reported 61 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, 55 of them locally acquired. Twenty-six of them were untraceable.
There were also more than 50 preliminary positive cases.
Of Friday's local infections, 24 of them involved residents who live in the Yau Tsim Mong district, where an outbreak is ongoing.
The Centre for Health Protection’s Chuang Shuk-kwan said the situation at Kensington Plaza on Parkes Street is particularly worrying, after residents of four units – all of them facing the same direction – became infected. A fifth unit facing another direction was also affected.
Chuang said a total of 10 residents from the building have now come down with the virus, and experts will investigate whether there’s vertical transmission in the building.
“Because there is a significant vertical distribution of the cases, there’s a site visit planned today to see whether there are any factors that may facilitate the transmission,” she said, adding that depending on the experts’ findings, other residents from the building may have to be sent to quarantine.
Meanwhile, residents of several more residential blocks in the Yau Tsim Mong area have been ordered to undergo mandatory testing after at least one confirmed case was reported from each of the buildings.
Mandatory testing orders have also been issued for four residential blocks in Tseung Kwan O, Yuen Long and Chai Wan.
RTHK journalist Nabela Qoser, who enraged pro-government figures with her tough questioning of officials during the 2019 protests, has had her civil service contract terminated, the station's staff union said on Friday.
Qoser, an assistant programme officer, has instead been offered a 120-day contract as an internal investigation into complaints made about her reporting continues.
The journalist's confrontational approach towards Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials at press conferences amid the months of social unrest sparked a flood of complaints to RTHK, and she was accused of being aggressive and biased.
But she also received plenty of praise and was cleared of wrongdoing following an internal probe.
Last October, however, the investigation was re-opened, and Qoser had her probation period as a civil servant extended by 120 days until the end of January.
The RTHK Programme Staff Union said Qoser was informed on Thursday that her civil service contract is being terminated, but she can take the new short contract instead if she wishes.
The union said management had stated, only verbally, that this short contract will be on civil service terms.
But the union said the journalist's previous years of service and MPF contributions will not be carried over, adding that the arrangement is unheard of for an entry level civil servant, with such short contracts normally only given to those who need to stay on for a while past their retirement date.
Union chairwoman Gladys Chiu said the "unprecedented, arbitrary and non-transparent" handling of the matter is an insult to everyone at RTHK.
"Whatever procedures that the management try to adopt.... in fact this is a termination of employment. However, it disguises itself as an act of grace, which is further enraging to the staff union," Chiu told reporters.
"I believe no staff should be treated this way."
Chiu said Qoser has been given until January 28 to decide whether to accept the contract.
The union leader also said the investigation into Qoser has involved looking at complaints borne out of "fake news" - such as an allegation that Qoser had asked the Chief Executive "When will you die?"
The station's management had already clarified that Qoser did not ask this question, Chiu said.
An RTHK spokesman said the public broadcaster does not comment on individual cases.
But as a government department, he said, the station handles recruitment matters in accordance with civil service regulations and established mechanisms set out by the Civil Service Bureau.
Meanwhile, the Journalists Association has condemned RTHK's decision to terminate Qoser's current civil service contract, saying it amounts to passing down a verdict without having a trial.
In a statement, the JA said the move was extremely unreasonable and called on the RTHK management to speed up the investigation on Qoser without bowing to political pressure.
The association stressed a journalist's role is to find out the truth, and in the process of doing so, he or she is bound to have to ask tough questions.
Last updated: 2021-01-22 HKT 19:45
A pro-government healthcare workers' group and four unions in the medical sector say a survey they've carried out suggests Hong Kong doctors, nurses and dentists prefer China's Sinovac coronavirus jabs to those developed overseas.
Medical Conscience said on Friday that they polled 930 healthcare workers, including 444 doctors and 318 dentists, regarding the three vaccines the Hong Kong government has procured so far.
Sixty-one percent said their preferred vaccine would be the one made by Sinovac, while 22 percent opted for the one made by Germany's BioNTech and 11 percent the jab from Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca.
Five percent of the respondents said they would refuse to take Covid-19 vaccines altogether.
Medical Conscience said the survey was carried out between January 7 and January 14.
Researchers in Brazil only made public the findings of their late-stage trials of the Sinovac jabs on January 13, saying it has an efficacy rate of 50.4 percent - lower than those of the other two.
But Dr David Lam from Medical Conscience said many in the medical sector already knew that Sinovac was their favourite, because it is made in a more conventional way, using inactivated virus particles.
"Maybe doctors and nurses are kind of more conservative people so they choose something they know well. That’s probably the reason why more people chose the inactivated virus technology," Lam said at a press conference.
"I wouldn’t really put too much emphasis on the branding of the vaccines, but rather the technology behind them."
Lam also said he has no problem with the government’s plan to prioritise care home residents and staff over healthcare workers when the inoculation programme is launched.
He said while he believes doctors and nurses should be among the first groups of people to get the jabs, they don't need to be right at the front of the queue because they are well-trained and can protect themselves using their professional knowledge.
The new chairwoman of the American Chamber of Commerce, Jessica Bartlett, said on Friday that she does not anticipate there will be a mass exodus of US capital from Hong Kong due to the implementation of the national security law last year.
Bartlett made the comment during a social media live stream, where she outlined AmCham's priorities for the coming year.
In her opening remarks, she said the SAR was currently at what she called “an inflection point” and that the political developments of the last two years have challenged the reputation of Hong Kong as a place that's “open for business”.
"We have to recognise those challenges and monitor the political and legal environment closely," she said, as she called on private enterprises to continue to advocate for a Hong Kong that is "globally and regionally relevant", and that still adheres to values such as free trade, rule of law, responsible business and a free flow of information.
When asked about whether or not she foresees an exodus of American capital from the SAR following the implementation of the national security law, she said: "There's not an all-in or an all-out".
Bartlett referred to AmCham’s business outlook survey for 2021, which found that more than half of those polled were cautiously optimistic that the business environment will be better in Hong Kong this year, but that some were concerned about the SAR’s future as a major business hub.
However, she said that while all businesses are constantly evaluating what their strategies are for the mainland, Hong Kong, and the Asia Pacific region, there has not been a mass exit of businesses.
"With some exceptions, so far we haven't seen mass exits. I think we've seen a lot of investors that remain very keen to be in Asia and to be in Hong Kong. They still have a lot of confidence in the Hong Kong market and that's a place they want to continue to invest," she said.
"They see this region as a growth region as compared to other regions in the economy, those fundamentals aren't changing."
Bartlett also sounded an optimistic tone on US-China relations under the Joe Biden administration, and said a top priotity for AmCham will be to build new relations with Washington DC as well as strengthen old ones.
She said she doesn’t anticipate an immediate relaxation of US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on mainland companies in the near term.
But she said the Biden administration should look at making adjustments, especially how the programme of sanctions is implemented given the challenges the private sector and US government are facing.
"Usually in the sanctions world, a sanctions programme lasts for a long time, it's not like an on-and-off switch," she said.
Bartlett said a review of those sanctions by Treasury Secretary-designate Janet Yellen could take three to six months, and that the best they can hope for is "micro changes".
A motion of thanks for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address was easily passed by the pro-government dominated Legislative Council on Friday, with all but two lawmakers voting in support of it.
Lawmakers praised the city’s leader for featuring Greater Bay Area integration, reform of the liberal studies subject, and a restoration of constitutional order in her policy blueprint last November.
But over the three days of speeches, pro-establishment lawmakers were, at times, scathing in their criticism of the administration’s efforts to handle the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
They called on authorities to do more to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, and to help people ride out the economic downturn.
The two lawmakers who voted against the motion of thanks were non-establishment members Cheng Chung-tai from Civic Passion and Pierre Chan, who represents the medical sector.
The vice chairman of the DAB, lawmaker Holden Chow, said with almost all opposition lawmakers having left the council, the vetting process this year was very smooth.
He said legislators are now able to reflect public opinions to officials during these debates, instead of being disrupted by delaying tactics by his rival camp.
"We don't want to waste time on the filibustering,” he said. “Of course some of my colleagues would provide advice. They might also criticise the policy address, but we don't do it in a very obstructive manner.”
He said he believes the government will listen to the advice and criticism aired during the debate.
Results from a public opinion poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Institute right after the policy address announcement in November showed 64 percent of those interviewed disapproved of the policy blueprint, with people surveyed giving it an average 27.2 marks out of a hundred.
But Chow said pro-government legislators had reflected social needs to officials attending the debate, and had raised concerns ranging from anti-epidemic efforts to support for the unemployed.