A total of 106 of the 364 Hongkongers who were stuck on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise in Japan for more than two weeks due to the coronavirus finally arrived back in the city on Thursday morning, and were sent straight to a government quarantine facility for 14 days.
Cathay Pacific flight CX8543 touched down at Hong Kong International Airport at 8.30am, where officers wearing protective gear were on hand to meet it.
Ten minutes later one officer opened the door of the aircraft, and some boarded the plane.
The first two passengers walked out, wearing a number and a mask, at 8.48am and got on a coach which would take them to the quarantine site in Fo Tan.
Most of the passengers that exited the plane were elderly or middle-aged, and one looked relived to be home and waved at officers.
The first coach left the airport shortly after 8.55am, and the first groups arrived at Chun Yeung Estate around 10.20am, driving through a police checkpoint without stopping.
More coaches leave airport for Fo Tan
Four coaches carrying people to the quarantine site at Chun Yeung Estate have left Hong Kong International Airport, and passengers are now boarding a fifth bus.
A boy and some other passengers carried big bags and suitcases down the steps from the plane to the tarmac.
While many looked tired, one man took out his mobile phone to take pictures of the occasion. Some elderly women had difficulty walking down the stairs, and their travelling partners and an officer had to support them as they descended.
In total eight coaches were used to take the passengers to the newly built development in Fo Ta, with the last one leaving the airport at 9.56am.
"I'd like to express my gratitude to the Japanese government for they have done their best under such a big challenge to help us arrange our first chartered flight home on the first day of the evacuation," Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said.
The minister said 16 passengers had declined to take the chartered flights and planned to return home by their own means. About 20 others were undecided.
"I hope they will change their minds and take the chartered flights. Otherwise, they may run into trouble booking their flights and accommodation," he said.
There was confusion on Wednesday whether mainland Chinese passengers would be on the flight after the Chinese embassy issued a statement saying "Chinese passengers" would be on board.
Lee said no mainlanders had requested to be flown back, though Macau residents had done so.
Meanwhile, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said food would be arranged for those in quarantine.
They would have their temperatures checked every day, and there would be medical professionals on hand around the clock to provide help if needed.
As the first batch of returning passengers saw their nightmare holidays came to an end, about 250 others were still stranded in Japan, some on board the cruise ship that has been their prison, and others at hospitals.
But, as they began their journeys home on the government-chartered flight in the early hours of Thursday, many were thrilled.
"I was worried that I would get infected on the cruise. I could hardly sleep every night in the past two weeks," one passenger said at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. "It feels that we could finally leave."
Another passenger said: "Going back to Hong Kong means I could see my family soon, although we still have to be quarantined … It feels like I am closer with my family."
The Diamond Princess has been quarantined in Yokohama since February 4. As of Thursday morning, 621 out of 3,600 passengers were confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus. Those infected included 55 Hongkongers.
Security minister John Lee Ka-chiu said on Thursday morning there were 364 Hong Kong citizens on the ship, instead of the 352 announced previously.
Among those that could not leave Japan were the ones who had been infected, and 33 who had come into close contact with them.
A second chartered flight is expected to leave Tokyo on Thursday night. The evacuation has been supported by the mainland Chinese government.
The Hong Kong government originally said passengers needed to submit health certificates from the Japanese government before they could disembark the ship.
In the end, some of those who left had not yet been given the certificate, though Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, the director of immigration, said all had tested negative for the coronavirus.
"Go, let's go home!" read the sign on one of the coaches that took the Hongkongers from the port to the airport.
The flight was supposed to leave Tokyo at 1.45am local time, but eventually took off at around 5am as the government wanted to take more passengers.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Hong Kong office said in a Facebook post: "We wish all the Hong Kong passengers could go home safely soon! The great motherland will always be the Chinese people's sturdiest shield!"
First groups arrive at quarantine site
The first three coaches arrived at Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan at 10.20am, and there was a heavy police presence nearby.
Some 25 minutes later, another three coaches arrived, accompanied by a fleet of officers on motorcycles. Passengers waved out of windows and took video as they passed a police checkpoint.
A roadblock was erected on a thoroughfare leading to the newly built housing estate, while officers in riot gear patrolled outside the estate and at Fo Tan MTR station.
Chun Yeung Estate was designated as the fifth quarantine site, and was initially set aside for 269 people, although that could be increased to as many as 1,000 if needed.
Earlier this month, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced a U-turn on her pledge that no new public housing estates would be used for quarantine purposes, despite the fact that 4,000 out of the 4,846 flats there had been allocated to people on the waiting list for public rental housing.
A HK$6,000 government allowance offered to affected families did not stop residents expecting to move in from taking to the streets in protest, while some Fo Tan residents also objected.
However, Lam has stuck to her guns, pointing to the fact that three earlier quarantine sites were already full, and a fourth was nearly full.
Lawmaker's concern for infected Hongkongers still stuck in Japan
Pro-establishment lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, who was helping the Hongkongers stranded in Yokohama, said he was worried about the 55 confirmed to have contracted the virus.
In one case, Cheng said a husband and wife were sent to Nagoya city, but were separated by authorities there later. The man could not find his spouse, whose mobile phone lost signal and ran out of battery.
"He is worried about where his wife went, while he was unclear his whereabouts. Many cases, a total of some 50 cases, are happening like this," Cheng said.
The lawmaker felt Japanese authorities had not yet developed a way to handle the infected cases, while hospitals he visited looked just like a normal hospital.
"For the whole system, in these few days, I feel that they have not had a great sense of awareness of (virus) prevention, to handle the potential outbreak they would face," he said.
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