HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong has arranged four charter flights to bring back 533 of its residents from the Chinese province of Hubei, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, about a month after countries around the world began evacuating their citizens.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the flights would return on Wednesday and Thursday and those coming back would be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.
Various countries including the United States, France, Germany and South Korea began evacuating hundreds of their citizens in late January or early February.
More than 3,800 Hong Kong residents in more than 30 cities in Hubei, of which Wuhan is capital, had asked the government of the Chinese-ruled, semi-autonomous city for help, creating a logistics headache for the government.
“We do not feel that we have delayed the return of Hong Kong people stranded in Hubei,” Lam told reporters at her weekly news conference.
“As far as I understand, even up to this moment there are still very clear restrictions on exit arrangements ... from Hubei province. As soon as the conditions were ready for us to help Hong Kong residents to come back to Hong Kong we have immediately made arrangements to do so.”
The health crisis comes on the heels of months of anti-government protests triggered by fears the former British colony’s special autonomy is being eroded by meddling by Beijing. The Chinese government denies interfering in Hong Kong.
The coronavirus has killed two of the 100 people infected in the Asian financial hub.
Lam’s government has come under criticism from pro-democracy activists and legislators, as well as some business and pro-establishment figures, for its handling of the outbreak.
In particular, its decision not to fully close the border with mainland China was seen by many as a move to appease Beijing, leading to protests against plans to turn some buildings into quarantine centers, some of which turned violent.
In the first week of February, 8,000 doctors, nurses and medical workers in the newly formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) took part in a five-day strike, chanting: “Close the border, save Hong Kong.”
Lam has maintained the government’s response had no political considerations and was evidence-based and according to scientific advice and World Health Organisation guidelines.
She also said a full closure of the border would be inappropriate and discriminatory.
The epidemic has reduced the flow of visitors to the city to a trickle and kept residents indoors, dealing a severe blow to the retail and tourism industries at a time when the city’s economy was already enduring its worse recession in a decade.
The Hong Kong government announced last week its largest ever budget deficit to soften the economic blow.
Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Kim Coghill, Robert Birsel