By Jessie Pang and Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong authorities quarantined a cruise ship for a second day on Thursday as they checked thousands of passengers and crew for the new coronavirus, forbidding anyone from disembarking to prevent further spreading of the epidemic.
Authorities said the World Dream’s roughly 1,800 crew members had all tested negative for the coronavirus, although 33 of them had respiratory tract infection symptoms of whom three had been sent to a hospital for isolation.
The roughly 1,800 passengers were now also being tested, said health official Chuang Shuk-kwan.
It was not clear how long they would all remain on the boat, where previously three mainland Chinese on board between January 19-24 were found to have the virus.
The cruise ship, operated by Dream Cruises, docked in Hong Kong after it was denied entry to the Taiwan port of Kaohsiung on Tuesday. Authorities have now suspended Hong Kong’s two cruise terminals.
The former British colony saw its first death from the virus on Tuesday. It has confirmed 22 cases, two of them critical, with at least six of the latest cases transmitted locally, authorities said.
The government has imposed a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone entering the Asian financial hub from the Chinese mainland.
Thousands of medical workers have joined striking union members to call on the government to fully seal the border, something leader Carrie Lam has so far rejected as impractical and discriminatory.
The city’s Hospital Authority said on Thursday emergency services would be severely hampered due to the large number of absent staff.
The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) union questioned the government’s plans to adequately quarantine people due to the large numbers still entering Hong Kong from the mainland.
“The HAEA expresses the highest level of doubt on whether Hong Kong has the ability to care for such a large number of people under mandatory quarantine when we are already dealing with severe shortage of resources and the depletion of surgical masks in our community.”
Separately, panicked residents, reacting to online rumours about supply shortages, hit supermarkets in droves to buy toilet rolls and hygiene products overnight. Fears over the virus have seen shelves cleared of basic essentials for much of the past week while people wait in over 12-hour queues to procure masks.
The virus outbreak has also amplified pressure on Hong Kong’s flagging economy, which contracted for the first time in a decade in 2019.
Hong Kong’s Retail Management Association said sales revenue of most retailers fell up to 50% since Jan. 24, while retailers of jewellery, watches, cosmetics and apparel – products typically popular with mainland tourists – fell as much as 80%.
“Small to medium enterprise shops will be the hardest hit … If the retail industry fails to receive timely and appropriate support, there will be a large wave of closures,” it said.
Credit Suisse Group said on Thursday that its Asian Investment Conference, due to be held in Hong Kong in March, has been cancelled due to the risks posed by the coronavirus.
(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Scott Murdoch and Donny Kwok; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Andrew Cawthorne.)