HONG KONG (AFP) — Hong Kong said on Friday that it will deploy an army of volunteers to bolster the forcible quarantine of all arrivals from mainland China, warning that anyone caught breaching the new rules faces up to six months in prison.
In a major escalation of its battle against the new coronavirus, the international finance hub said that beginning Saturday, anyone arriving from the mainland will have to undergo 14 days compulsory quarantine.
Officials hope the new measures will virtually halt cross-border traffic while allowing the city to remain stocked with food and goods from the mainland, where the virus has killed more than 630 people.
Cabinet ministers unveiled the quarantine plans just six hours before the new policy was to take effect.
Hong Kong residents arriving from mainland China will be allowed to self-quarantine at home. Chinese and international visitors will be able to self-quarantine at hotels or any other accommodation they have arranged.
“If they cannot arrange accommodation, they will be taken to the temporary facilities prepared by the government,” health secretary Sophia Chan said.
Anyone who has been to mainland China in the past 14 days and then flies into Hong Kong from another destination will also be quarantined.
Officials — backed by volunteers from the civil service and some students — will conduct spot checks or make daily phone calls to ensure people stay at home.
Those caught breaking their quarantine face up to six months in jail and a fine of $3,200.
“We will be stopping a lot of people with the new measures,” Security Minister John Lee said.
The new regulations were enacted under a sweeping emergency law that allows city leaders to bypass the legislature during a disease outbreak.
Exemptions can be made for a variety of key jobs, including flight and shipping crews and cross-border truck drivers, to ensure goods and food keep coming into the city.
Hong Kong has been hit by a wave of panic buying in recent days, with supermarket shelves often emptied of crucial goods such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rice and pasta.
The government blames false online rumors of shortages, saying supplies are stable.
“The problem of supply shortage doesn’t exist,” said Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung.
“Citizens do not need to worry or make excessive purchases out of panic. I urge the public not to believe in rumors.”
The new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan at the end of last year has killed more than 630 people and spread around the world.
The latest figures from China show there are more than 30,000 people infected there.
Outside mainland China, there have been more than 320 infections reported in two dozen countries.
Hong Kong has 25 confirmed cases; one patient died there this week. Many of the newer infections have no history of travel to mainland China, prompting fears that the city now has a self-sustaining outbreak.
There have been growing calls for the border with China to be sealed entirely.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leadership, which has record low approval ratings after months of pro-democracy protests, has been reluctant to make such a move.
Thousands of medical workers, including some doctors and nurses, have been on strike this week in a bid to force the government to entirely seal the border.
On Friday, hundreds of union members occupied the offices of the Hospital Authority. Late Friday the union called off its strike.
© Agence France-Presse