More than two dozen Hong Kong officials have been ordered to quarantine due to possible COVID-19 exposure, as a scandal over a large birthday party they attended despite the government’s own pandemic warnings widened.
All of the some 170 guests at a celebration thrown for a representative for a mainland Chinese agency were being sent to the government quarantine camp in Penny’s Bay, health official Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a press briefing Friday. Some of Hong Kong’s most senior politicians and more than 20% of its new “patriots-only” legislature will be confined to 200-square-foot (20-square-meter) rooms with no wifi access, just as the government fights an outbreak of the infectious Omicron variant.
Some 30 government officials gathered Monday for the birthday of Witman Hung, a local representative for the Shenzhen Qianhai Authority, despite government warnings to avoid mass gatherings. The celebration began at 6 p.m. as a dinner at a Spanish restaurant and then continued until about midnight, officials said Friday. The two guests who have since tested preliminary positive for COVID-19 weren’t at the party at the same time.
The details about the party came to light as more evidence emerged suggesting that the highly contagious Omicron variant was already spreading widely. Hong Kong now has at least three transmission chains and officials said they can’t rule out hidden clusters in the community.
A large outbreak would undermine Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s ability to maintain a COVID-zero strategy of eliminating the virus from the city’s borders. That policy has underpinned her goal of restarting quarantine-free travel with the mainland.
The scandal also risks feeding further public resentment against Lam’s Beijing-backed government, which has maintained some of the world’s toughest travel curbs, jailed scores of pro-democracy activists, forced newspaper closures and installed a new opposition-free legislature. It comes at an inopportune time for Lam personally, since she must soon decide whether she’ll seek China’s blessing for a second five-year term as leader.
Lam said on Thursday she was “disappointed” in the party-going officials while trying to sidestep personal blame, saying accountability “does not mean that I’m responsible of the decisions and actions of my colleagues.” Earlier in the week, she took a harder line over alleged COVID-19 violations by Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. staff, arguing that “although the management may not be aware of all the actions that each employee takes, it’s not an excuse to not to be blamed.”
Those in quarantine include Financial Services Secretary Christopher Hui, Police Chief Raymond Siu, Immigration Director Au Ka-wang, Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui and Independent Commission Against Corruption Commissioner Simon Peh.
Legislative Council President Andrew Leung said at a news briefing Friday that at least 19 members of the 90-seat Legislative Council were at the party, adding no decision had yet been made whether to hold Wednesday’s opening session in person.
Lam said Thursday the officials would face action without specifying what form that would take. Meanwhile, the party’s guest of honor, Hung, apologized on Facebook late Thursday for undermining the government’s pandemic efforts. “I will certainly learn a lesson and reflect on it deeply,” he said.
This isn’t the first time top Hong Kong government officials have flouted the guidance they’ve asked members of the public to follow. In July, three Hong Kong officials—including Au, the immigration chief—were fined for attending a hotpot dinner that breached virus measures, inflaming resentment toward the government.
In a statement Friday, Au said he’d only briefly attended the party and did not sit down to eat. “Regarding the additional burden to the epidemic prevention work and the disturbance to the public as a result of my personal behavior, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” he added. “I have reflected on this incident and shall be more vigilant in future.”
—With assistance from Olivia Tam.