Hong Kong officials have not done enough to prevent the deadly China coronavirus from spiralling out of control as the Lunar New Year approaches, medical experts warned on Thursday, as they called for bolder steps to tackle the spread.
Suggested new measures included requiring every traveller arriving in the city to make a health declaration with a suitable punishment for not doing so honestly, issuing a black travel alert for the city at the epicentre of the outbreak Wuhan and giving away free masks - in public facilities at least.
Government officials announced a U-turn on Thursday evening, cancelling two major Lunar New Year events and requiring everyone arriving in the city by high-speed rail to fill out a health form from Friday. All trains would also be thoroughly disinfected upon arrival.
But medical experts said this was not enough because the virus had already killed 17 people in mainland China while countries including South Korea, Japan, the US and others had reported confirmed cases.
"There is so much more the Hong Kong government can do. They have done so little so far," said Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors' Association.
"The checks at the borders are insufficient."
She said that everyone coming to Hong Kong through all checkpoints, including Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau, should be asked to fill out health declaration forms so the government could track them down more easily.
Ma also urged the government to consider giving away free masks in public facilities, such as libraries, to prevent the spread of germs.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a Chinese University respiratory medicine expert, said the government should consider imposing punishments on those who did not fill out medical forms honestly.
Dr Ho Pak-leung from the University of Hong Kong said the government was now doing worse than in 2003, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) killed 299 people in the city. At that time, everyone entering the city needed to fill out a health form.
"Hong Kong needs to wake up. We all need to wake up. The situation right now is very severe," he said.
Ho added the government should issue the black travel alert to Wuhan, the top level of a three-level mechanism which would mean everyone should avoid going to the city. At present, the government has only issued the black alert to Syria.
He said doctors had claimed many sick mainland Chinese people were trying to come to Hong Kong to seek medical treatment, and that this showed the need to step up border controls.
Ophthalmologist Dennis Lam Shun-chiu said the government should not only conduct temperature checks on those coming into Hong Kong, but those leaving as well, to prevent the virus spreading outside the city.
Meanwhile, Ann Chiang Lai-wan from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the government should distribute free masks to citizens, saying the price of a box of 30 masks had recently jumped fourfold - from HK$50 (US$6) to HK$200 (US$26).
The Macau government announced on Thursday it had ordered 20 million face masks to be sold to citizens at low price.
Lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, hit out at the authorities for allowing small passenger vehicles to use the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge for free from Friday to Thursday next week, which he said would effectively open up the city to the virus.
Additional reporting by Kanis Leung and Chris Lau
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