Hong Kong shuts schools as new coronavirus cases hit city

Hong Kong has closed schools and tightened social-distancing requirements after a resurgence in locally infected coronavirus cases in the Asian financial hub.

Secondary and primary schools as well as kindergartens would be suspended starting on Monday, said Kevin Yeung, education secretary. The decision was taken “in view of the exponential growth of confirmed Covid-19 local cases over the past two days”, he said.

While small compared with outbreaks in the US and Europe, Hong Kong’s 147 new Covid-19 cases over the past seven days, of which 88 were locally transmitted, represents one of the largest spikes in the city since the start of the pandemic.

The outbreak comes as new infections have swept across other cities that had previously looked to have brought the pandemic under control, such as Australia’s second-largest city Melbourne, which this week was put into lockdown for six weeks.

Hong Kong’s new cases were concentrated in a public housing estate, an elderly care home and in local restaurants, with taxi drivers also thought to have spread the disease. An increasing number of cases were of unknown origin.

The territory has only 1,404 active cases and has suffered seven deaths. Hong Kongers were quick to respond to the coronavirus pandemic after being scarred by Sars in 2003, which killed almost 300 people. They have been assiduous in using face masks, washing hands and working from home.

But on Friday, the number of cases rose by 38, sparking concern in the city.

David Hui, a leading infectious disease expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the rise in cases was the most serious since the outbreak began in January. “There are a lot of silent transmission chains within the community,” he said. “I am most worried because there are a lot of cases with an unknown source of infections.”

Social-distancing measures would have to be tightened further if the infection rate did not slow down in the next few days, he suggested.

The virus found in new patients had undergone a slight mutation and was similar to that detected in Europe and Beijing in late May and June, he said. The virus had a much higher transmission potential but the severity of its symptoms remained the same.

Hong Kong’s schools resumed classes in late May after being shut since January. No new cases have been confirmed at any school.

Sophia Chan, the secretary for food and health, announced new social-distancing measures for restaurants and bars on Thursday, including limiting customers per table to eight and four respectively.

“As society needs to resume some economic and social activities to a limited extent, it is inevitable that new local cases will appear,” Ms Chan said.