HK Cuts China Flights To Fight Wuhan Coronavirus, But Other governments Unlikely To Follow Suit

30-Jan-2020 Intellasia | Forbes | 6:02 AM Print This Post

With passengers still travelling by air amid the outbreak of Wuhan coronavirus, Hong Kong’s government announced it was halving the number of flights to Mainland China, where the virus originated and most infections are located.

In addition to the partial flight ban, all cross-border train and ferry services will be suspended and some land borders will be closed, all effective January 30. Hong Kong Airlines is cutting flights through mid-February and Cathay Pacific through late March. The measures are unprecedented and were not enacted during the height of SARS in 2003.

Yet other governments are unlikely to replicate Hong Kong’s extreme action, made in the name of health but coming after the public already sceptical of the government after last year’s protests faulted leaders for reacting slowly and with policy blunders to the virus’ spread. Civil displeasure culminated in recent days with protests at a proposed quarantine site and low-scale bombing of a hospital restroom.

Even if other governments do not force or nudge flight reductions, airlines may cancel flights if demand rapidly decreases and air crew are worried about being on flights to Mainland China. Foreign governments are cautioning against non-essential travel to Mainland China while China itself is urging its citizens not to travel abroad. They typically comprise over half of passengers on a flight, and in some markets a flight can be carrying almost exclusively outbound Chinese travellers. China previously banned outbound group travel.

In contrast to Hong Kong’s announcement on January 28, Singapore the same day said it would only ban those who have been to Hubei in the last 14 days. Its policy takes effect January 29, a day earlier than Hong Kong’s. Singapore’s ban is for those wanting to enter the country as well as transit through Changi airport. Last weekend passengers on Singaporean airline Scoot were frustrated they were not told their flight to Hangzhou had passengers from Wuhan. The flight was quarantined upon arrival in China and Singapore sent a special flight to retrieve its nationals and the airline crew.

International responses to the virus are becoming more varied and extreme after Hong Kong’s bold announcement, hindering efforts from organisations encouraging consistent and rational responses.

The World Health Organization has been advocating “measures to limit the risk of export or import of the disease, without unnecessary restrictions on international traffic.” Aviation trade body IATA has echoed WHO’s statement. The advice is made subjective given the open interpretation of “unnecessary restrictions.”

Hong Kong’s measures are a swift change, seemingly designed to instil confidence in a doubtful public. There were growing calls last Saturday for the territory to close its borders with Mainland China, but the city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, dismissed any notion of that as “inappropriate and impractical.” The next day she reversed course, announcing Hong Kong would prohibit the entry of anyone who in the last 14 days had been in Hubei province. Its capital is Wuhan, the centre of the viral outbreak.

The episode reinforced a view the government moves too slowly and is out of touch with the public. There were initial frustration that as the virus took on prominence last week, Lam was away from Hong Kong to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Some of her comments about protests angered the public.

In recent days, there was a protest against the government’s proposal to use an empty housing estate as a quarantine facility. Hong Kong cancelled the plan. The government sought to reduce human-to-human infections by saying treatment in Hong Kong for the virus would be free. But this stoked fears that Mainland Chinese would come to Hong Kong for perceived better and faster treatment. This furthered calls for border closures. Hong Kong later revised its policy, saying treatment would only be free for local residents.

Since Monday morning, a low-grade bomb detonated at a hospital restroom, an unexploded device was found at a land border checkpoint restroom, and a third restroom was set on fire. No one was killed or injured in any of the incidents. Unverified messages claimed the acts were a warning for the government to take more action against the virus, including closing the territory’s border.


Category: Hong Kong

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