Cathay Pacific Airways on Friday slammed employees responsible for a quarantine breach that has forced the airline to cancel flights to and from Hong Kong, its only hub, and threatened the former British colony with an explosive fifth wave of Covid-19.
The breach has heightened concerns over a potential outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 after three aircrew carrying the strain violated isolation protocols, including by visiting a popular Central bar, after they returned from the US.
Such an outbreak would undermine Hong Kong’s zero-Covid strategy and threaten the potential reopening of the boundary with the rest of China.
“We’re at the brink of a fifth wave,” said Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Two preliminary-positive cases have already been linked to one of the aircrew.
“We have a high risk of Omicron spread in the community,” said Tony Ko, head of Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority. “As we’ve seen overseas, once it takes hold in the community it can spread explosively.”
The airline said the latest tightening of quarantine restrictions on aircrew had led it to make significant changes to its flight schedule, including cancellations of passenger and cargo flights to and from Hong Kong.
“In recent days five of our aircrew have tested positive for the Omicron variant during their medical surveillance period following their return to Hong Kong from duty,” Andy Wong, Cathay’s general manager for corporate affairs, said in a statement.
“Regrettably, our investigation into these cases has indicated a serious breach of protocols by some of those individuals. Failure to comply with medical surveillance regulations will lead to disciplinary procedures.”
Wong said it was “acutely aware of the critical importance” of complying with anti-pandemic measures both in Hong Kong and overseas, and apologised for the “inconvenience and disruption” caused.
Cargo Rules Tightened
“The actions of these individuals are extremely disappointing, as they undermine the otherwise exemplary dedication and compliance shown by our over 10,000 aircrew,” he added.
Hong Kong health authorities said the city would tighten quarantine rules for air cargo crew to tackle the growing threat of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Cathay Pacific did not say how many flights would be cancelled in and out of Hong Kong but that the cancellations would begin immediately and that the airline planned to operate a skeleton passenger flight schedule in January.
“We operate all our flights with fully vaccinated aircrew only,” Wong said. “Our crew are tested frequently and in 2021 alone have undertaken over 210,000 Covid-19 tests in Hong Kong, including multiple tests after every flight.”
Cathay is requiring all eligible aircrew to receive a third dose of Covid-19 vaccine. “All other Cathay Pacific employees will also be strongly encouraged to get a third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine as early as possible,” Wong said.
In a separate announcement, the airline added that long haul freight and cargo-only passenger flights, including from Europe, Riyadh and Dubai will be suspended for seven days, up to January 6.
The airline already announced last week that it would cancel some flights in January.
On Wednesday, health officials suspended Cathay flights from Los Angeles or Toronto until January 11 after two flights from the US each had two passengers who tested positive upon arrival and a flight from Canada had three passengers who tested positive.
- George Russell, with Reuters