Addressing Sunday’s daily press conference about Macau’s novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, Health Bureau (SSM) Director Lei Chin Ion admitted that the local government’s airlift next Saturday to bring Macau residents stranded in Hubei province back to Macau entails a “very high” risk for Macau’s COVID-19 epidemic situation and that the risk will have to be borne by the “whole community”.
The health chief also said that the local government had made the decision to bring the Macau residents stranded in the province back to the city as it had been under intense pressure on the matter, such as by the local residents stranded in Hubei and by some local reporters.
It was mostly local Portuguese reporters who repeatedly asked government officials questions in the daily press conferences last week about whether the local government would charter a plane to bring Macau residents in Hubei back to the city.
Lei first announced during the daily press conference on Saturday that the local government had decided to airlift Macau residents stranded in Hubei province, adding that the charter flight was slated to fly to the provincial capital of Wuhan this coming weekend to bring local residents in and near Wuhan back to Macau. Lei said on Saturday that the government expected 50 to 60 Macau residents to board the first charter flight.
According to Saturday’s press conference, 29 Macau residents are in Wuhan. The areas near Wuhan to be considered for the first charter flight would not only depend on their respective geographical locations vis-à-vis Wuhan but also on the distance by road and the traffic situation, according to Saturday’s press conference.
The local government said last month that bringing the residents back to Macau involved a string of difficulties such as that the residents are in various locales in the province, some of them in remote areas about five hours by car from Wuhan.
Hubei, which is about double the size of Portugal, has a population of about 60 million.
The local government has said that it has been striving to bring the Macau residents stranded in Hubei back to Macau by various possible channels, such as by bus or high-speed train.
Lei said on Saturday that the passengers would undergo a basic medical examination before being allowed to board the charter plane, and only those who do not show any COVID-19 symptoms and have not been in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients would be allowed to be airlifted out. Lei said on Saturday that it was unfeasible to arrange for the passengers to undergo a COVID-19 test before they board the plane.
Lei said on Saturday that, upon arrival in Macau, the residents will immediately be taken to the Public Health Clinical Centre in Coloane for 14-day medical surveillance.
Most of the Macau residents stranded in Hubei are understood to have asked the local government to help them return home.
The airlift will be arranged for Macau ID card holders only, officials pointed out during Saturday’s press conference. This means that family members who do not hold Macau ID cards won’t be able to be airlifted out.
Inês Chan Lou, who heads the Licensing and Inspection Department of the Macau Government Tourism Office (MGTO), said during Sunday’s press conference that a total of 164 Macau residents and their accompanying relatives stranded in Hubei have so far asked for help from the local government, adding that 16 of them do not hold a Macau ID card. She stressed that only Macau ID card holders will be eligible to be airlifted out.
No plan yet for ‘second round’
Chan emphasised that the local government has no plan yet as to how and when it would bring locals stranded in Hubei back to Macau “in the second round.”
During Sunday’s press conference, Lei said that the local government “provisionally” planned for the charter plane – an Air Macau jet – to depart for Wuhan on Saturday to bring back Macau residents who are in or near Wuhan. Lei said that 65 Macau residents were eligible to get on the flight – officially defined as those who are in or near Wuhan, adding that 50 of them were willing to get on the flight.
Lei noted that so far no Macau residents stranded in Hubei appear to have been infected with the novel coronavirus after they have been staying there for around two months.
Lei admitted that the local government’s decision to airlift Macau residents stranded in Hubei will entail a “very high” risk for Macau’s COVID-19 situation, including that some of the passengers would possibly be confirmed to have been infected with the novel coronavirus after returning to Macau, while some of the medical staff members and those from other government entities on the plane would possibly be infected with the virus. Lei said that the “very high” risk would have to be borne by the “whole community” of Macau.
Because of the “very high” risk, Lei said that the local government would carry out the airlift in line with “the most rigorous” plan possible.
Lei said that the local government had been under “very big” pressure over the past few days to bring Macau residents back from Hubei, such as by the strong demands made by those stranded in the province and by local media. Lei said that the local government had also made the decision because it believed that it is its responsibility to ensure the health of all Macau residents and to bring locals stranded in the province back to Macau.
‘No way not to face the issue’
“[Macau] residents in Hubei have complained a lot to the [local government’s] Tourism Crisis Management Office, and their complaints have also been transmitted by [some] reporters,” Lei said, adding that “there is no way for the [local] government not to face this issue.”
When asked what other individuals have put pressure on the local government on the matter, Lei said that the local government was obliged to ensure all Macau residents’ health, and other countries and regions such as the United States and Hong Kong have or will airlift their residents stranded in Hubei.
According to Lei, the passengers who will be airlifted out will have to fill in a form indicating their health status before boarding the plane, and they would be held criminally liable if they fail to tell the truth.
According to Lei, the passengers will not be allowed any hand luggage and their checked-in luggage should be as “simple” as possible. All checked-in luggage will be disinfected and the passengers will not be allowed to put any food, including souvenir food, into their luggage. Lei said that “the passengers will have to board and disembark from the plane very quickly” to reduce the risk of cross-infection.
In addition to the crew members, all passengers must wear full-body protective clothing, Lei said.
Lei said that all passengers must wear facemasks and will not be allowed to use the toilet during the flight, and therefore those in need will be provided with a nappy. No meals will be provided during the flight, Lei said.
Worst possible scenario
Lei also said that the local government is ready to face the worst possible scenario resulting from the airlift. Lei noted that up to 148 Macau residents – those with a Macau ID card – are eligible to be brought back to Macau by the local government. Lei noted that with the infection rate of 1 to 10 percent in Wuhan, up to 14 Macau residents stranded in Hubei would possibly be confirmed to have been infected with the novel coronavirus after returning to Macau.
Lei said that the cost of the charter flight will be fully borne by the local government, adding he believed that the passengers would be unable to afford it.
According to Lei, the medical staff members on the plane will not need to undergo medical surveillance as they have been professionally trained, while those from other government entities on the plane will have to undergo 14-day medical surveillance as they have not received professional medical training.
Despite the high risk of the passengers being infected with the virus, Lei underlined that 14 days will be sufficient for their medical surveillance, as the number of cases with a longer incubation period has so far been found to be very small.
Lei pointed out that as Macau has not confirmed a new COVID-19 case for 26 consecutive days, the risk of the occurrence of a community outbreak in Macau is currently low.
(The Macau Post Daily/Macau News)
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