Dubai was one of the few positive stories this week when it welcomed back international tourists on July 7 (photo courtesy Shutterstock).
It’s been a challenging week in Asia Pacific, with lockdown and social distancing measures reintroduced amidst soaring coronavirus case numbers in many areas.
Hong Kong recorded one of its highest daily increases on July 9 with a total of 42 confirmed new cases. Eight of these were imported, three of which were airline pilots. Testing has now been widened to include air crew on arrival into Hong Kong which has resulted in two US carriers, American Airlines and United Airlines, temporarily halting flights into the territory.
Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection said that all incoming crews must undergo deep throat saliva testing and anyone refusing to be tested would be subject to a fine or imprisonment. If a crew member tests positive, hospital admission will be arranged.
In response, American Airlines said it would be halting flights with Hong Kong until August 5. United Airlines stated that due to “recent changes in testing protocol” its flights to and from Hong Kong would be suspended until July 10 while the carrier assesses how the changes will impact future operations.
Inside Hong Kong, schools have been suspended from July 13 and social distancing measures will be reintroduced from July 11 in light of the rising case numbers. These measures include limiting restaurant tables to no more than eight diners and no more than four patrons per table in bars and pubs. The government is urging Hong Kongers to maintain good hygiene standards and to wear face masks in crowded areas, including in restaurants when they are not eating or drinking. The measures will be reassessed on July 24.
“This virus is not going to vanish in the near future and clusters are to be expected,” said the territory’s secretary for Food & Health, professor Sophia Chan, at a press briefing. “We all have to learn to coexist with the virus. We don’t aim to achieve zero infections, but we aim to keep the virus within control and within what our medical system can deal with.”
Tokyo also experienced a surge in cases this week, recording 224 new infections on July 9. However, the Japanese government said it would not be reimposing a state of emergency and that the rise can be partly attributed to increased testing. More than 80% of confirmed cases were aged under 30 years.
Australia continued to struggle with a spike in infections in the state of Victoria. Melbourne has now been locked down, with residents barred from leaving home for six weeks except for essential reasons. Domestic borders with neighbouring states closed on July 7.
The lockdown was announced after Victoria recorded 91 new infections in one day, its highest daily increase since the beginning of the pandemic. And on July 10, 288 new cases were reported, the highest daily increase of any state since the pandemic began.
The surge has meant that international flights are currently barred from landing in Melbourne. Prime minister Scott Morrison held a press briefing on July 10 where he announced that incoming international flights into the country as a whole would be cut by 50% from July 13 to just 4,000 arrivals a week as quarantine centres struggle to accommodate increasing numbers of returning residents. All arrivals are expected to quarantine for 14 days in state allocated hotels. States are also expected to start charging incoming Australians for their quarantine accommodation, following the lead of Queensland and the Northern Territories. The government will also be launching a national review of hotel quarantine facilities after breaches in Victoria led to increased infection rates.
In more positive news, Queensland reopened its borders on July 10 to all other states, apart from Victoria.
Across the Tasman, New Zealand is experiencing a similar quarantine overload as New Zealanders return home. Air New Zealand put a temporary hold on new bookings for international flights into the country this week following a request from the New Zealand government. The hold will last for three weeks from July 7 and the airline is also looking at aligning daily arrivals with the quarantine capacity available. All returning residents are required to quarantine in managed isolation for 14 days on entry into the country. There are currently around 6,000 travellers in 28 locations and the government says it is planning to increase space to manage demand in coming weeks.
The one ray of light this week was Dubai, which reopened to international travellers on July 7. Arrivals were greeted with a ‘warm welcome’ sticker and coronavirus testing. The city has been closed to overseas arrivals for nearly four months after all airports in the United Arab Emirates shut on March 26.
All tourists must have valid health insurance with coronavirus cover to enter Dubai and any arrivals that test positive must isolate for 14 days in a government facility at their own expense. Tourists with COVID-19 negative certification will be exempt from the 14-day quarantine on arrival.