Hong Kong authorities lambasted Cathay Pacific over breaches of Covid-19 restrictions, as health officials confirmed the first community-spread Omicron cases in the city.
Hong Kong had confirmed at least 87 Omicron infections, most of which were imported. But two locally spread cases are believed to be linked to a Cathay crew member who visited the same restaurant as the infected individuals while under home quarantine. The airline said at least five crew members have tested positive for the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, on Friday expressed “strong dissatisfaction” during a meeting with the airline’s chair and chief executive.
“Some [Cathay] crew members did not comply with requirements to undergo three days of isolation at home,” the city’s health minister Sophia Chan told a press conference. “The chief executive has expressed that these violations are totally unacceptable.”
Cathay said it was “extremely disappointed” that staff had breached protocols and added they would face disciplinary procedures.
The airline had earlier announced that it would halt all long-haul freight flights until at least January 6 after authorities extended quarantine restrictions for air crew because of the new Omicron cases.
The government’s postal service said airmail delivery to the US, Canada, Australia and Mexico would be suspended from Saturday until further notice “owing to the substantial reduction in flight frequencies”.
Hong Kong has imposed some of the world’s most stringent pandemic controls under its “zero-Covid” strategy, with most arrivals subjected to up to 21 days’ quarantine and non-residents from more than 120 countries banned from entering the city.
The airline has been hit hard, with passenger levels down more than 90 per cent and total cargo hauled 24 per cent lower compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Cargo air crew had previously been exempt from quarantine but will now have to undergo seven days of isolation in a hotel. Crews on passenger flights have to go through up to two weeks of quarantine.
Cathay said earlier this week it would cancel more passenger flights in the first quarter of next year and operate a “skeleton” schedule in January.
Andy Wong, Cathay’s general manager of corporate affairs, said the operational and travel restrictions continued “to constrain our ability to operate flights as planned”.
“We are wary that any further tightening of air crew quarantine arrangements would lead to reductions in flight frequencies to protect the wellbeing of our crew members and the overall safety of our operations,” Wong said.
“Such action would, in turn, cause dramatic disruptions to supply chains in the short-term, jeopardising the adequate supply of essential goods in an already scarce supply chain environment, impacting the livelihoods of thousands of people in Hong Kong and undermining Hong Kong International Airport as a leading cargo hub.”
Aviation analysts say the tough rules risk undermining the city’s status as a flight and logistics hub.
“The situation is bleak for Cathay,” said Achim Czerny, an associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who specialises in aviation management and transport economics. “With the current developments of the virus and quarantine requirements, there is little hope for improvement in the short term.”
Last month, logistics company FedEx moved to shut its crew base in Hong Kong and relocate staff overseas. Airlines including Finnair, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have been banned from flying several routes into the city after cases were recorded on individuals who had arrived on the carriers.