Agencies dealing with the employment of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong have rejected calls for flights from the Philippines to be banned, and said workers should be vaccinated against Covid-19 before entering the city.
A debate over stopping flights has intensified after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases involving people arriving from the country grew over the past couple of weeks. Among the 56 imported infections recorded since last Thursday, 18 were from the Philippines.
Hong Kong recorded eight new cases of Covid-19 on Wednesday, of which six were from overseas, including one involving a person who arrived from the Philippines last month.
Professor Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist from the University of Hong Kong, has suggested stopping flights, but he expressed reservations about making vaccination compulsory for domestic workers before they entered the city.
He said making taking the jab a condition for entry would go against the voluntary nature of the city’s inoculation programme, and there was a lack of evidence that helpers were a higher infection risk than other occupations.
“We can discuss other occupations when talking about this … do they have to face a mandatory order to get vaccinated based on the same principle?” he said. “The views against making the inoculation compulsory is still the mainstream in Hong Kong.”
Cheung Kit-man, chairman of the Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association, said banning flights from the Philippines would worsen the shortage of domestic workers in Hong Kong. About 150 domestic helpers enter Hong Kong every day, with more than half of those coming from the Philippines, he said.
He suggested that Filipinos and Indonesians-the two groups that make up most of the city’s domestic worker population of 400,000-be given priority to get vaccinated before coming to Hong Kong.
Those who have been inoculated should see their compulsory 21-day isolation in Hong Kong hotels shortened to 14 days, he suggested. For those who do not get vaccinated, Cheung said they should still be allowed to come to Hong Kong, but they must be quarantined for three weeks.
According to Cheung, a problem with banning flights was that domestic workers already in the city could switch to new employers who were willing to pay more. But before the workers moved, they would have to stay in the agencies’ boarding houses with possibly dozens of others, potentially leading to another outbreak, he added.
Cheung said the Indonesian consulate told him they would talk to the Hong Kong government about shortening the 21-day quarantine requirements to just 14 days for workers from the country who had been vaccinated.
Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, managing director of the Technic Employment Service Centre, supported the idea of domestic workers getting priority vaccination in their home countries, and said once inoculated, workers should only be required to spend seven or 14 days in quarantine after arriving in Hong Kong.
Employers paid for the helpers’ hotel quarantine fees and that could cost about HK$20,000, she added.
Eman Villanueva, spokesman of the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, urged the Hong Kong government not to ban flights from the Philippines.
“Those who are preparing to come to Hong Kong have already done their training and paid for the agency fees. If the government suddenly suspends the flights, they will be left with nothing,” said Villanueva, himself a domestic worker in the city.
He added that if Filipinos had to be vaccinated before they were allowed to work in Hong Kong, it would be unfair and discriminatory, unless it also applied to people coming from other countries.
Villanueva was also not confident that migrant workers could get priority vaccination in the Philippines, as the country’s vaccination programme only began about a month ago and had progressed slowly.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said the government should review the situation and “could do more” to tighten arrival requirements for travellers from the Philippines.
Wednesday’s figure took the total number of confirmed cases in the city to 11,539, with 205 related deaths. Chuang said there were 10 preliminary-positive cases, mostly imported.
Alongside the imported case from the Philippines, which involved a person who arrived on March 21 and carried the N501Y variant, another two cases arrived from India, two from Pakistan and one from Egypt. This brought the total number of people infected with the new variant in Hong Kong to 178.
The latest local cases where the source of infection was unknown involved two people who both live in Tuen Mun, although authorities said the cases were unlinked.
A 71-year-old woman who lives in Oi Fai House, on Yau Oi Estate, was confirmed on Monday after developing a headache. According to Chuang, she and her friends would often do morning exercises in front of Tuen Mun Government Offices, and go for meals at four restaurants nearby.
Another 41-year-old man, who lives at King Fu House, on Shan King Estate, and works at offices in Wheelock House in Central, was also confirmed positive after developing a cough last week. At least 10 of his colleagues will be quarantined.
In addition, a second resident at Oi Fai House, who lives two floors from the elderly woman, tested preliminary-positive while asymptomatic. Officials said that while the 70-year-old woman lived alone and rarely went out, family members usually visited her once a week, and another friend came to cook and clean for her at weekends. They would all be sent to quarantine, added Chuang.
“We cannot exclude that there are some silent transmissions in the Tun Mun area, [but] we cannot find any exact linkage with these three cases yet,” Chuang said.
Additional reporting by Kanis Leung