Hong Kong unveils further steps to curb COVID-19 spread, boost vaccinations

HONG KONG, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Hong Kong will shut kindergartens and primary schools and start offering COVID-19 vaccines for children from the age of five, the city's leader said on Tuesday, as the financial hub grapples with an increase in coronavirus infections.

Certain passengers meanwhile will be banned from transiting through Hong Kong for a month, Bloomberg News reported, citing unnamed people familiar with the matter.

It comes as the Chinese-ruled city has seen some local transmissions of the Omicron coronavirus variant after three months of no local coronavirus cases at the end of last year.

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters in a weekly media briefing that kindergartens and primary schools must stop face-to-face classes from Friday until after the Lunar New Year at the beginning of February to prevent transmissions of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Schools had mostly resumed in-person classes late last year after months of online teaching.

Children over five will be able to get the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine, Lam said. Authorities have cleared the other vaccine available in Hong Kong, made by Germany's BioNTech, for children aged 12 and older.

"I am optimistic and confident we can overcome the situation," Lam said.

Separately, Bloomberg News said Hong Kong's international airport was set to ban transit by passengers from 150 designated high-risk places from Jan. 15 to Feb. 14, citing the unnamed sources.

The ban will not apply to diplomats, government officials, athletes and staff participating in the Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4 in Beijing, according to the report.

The city's Transport and Housing Bureau did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Lam did not mention new air transit rules during her press conference.

Hong Kong had already banned passenger flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Britain and the United States in early January.

'MOST UNFORTUNATE'

Hong Kong is far behind other developed cities with its vaccination campaign. Less than 75% of eligible people have had a first dose, while just under 70% have had a second one. About 8% have received a third.

The city saw a three-month streak of no local coronavirus transmission until the end of last year. There have since been more than 40 local transmissions of the Omicron variant, with more than 4,000 people considered close contacts sent into government-mandated quarantine, Lam said.

Lam said the government would also launch a new anti-epidemic relief fund, with details to be announced on Friday. The government had at least HK$4 billion ($513 million) available for new economic relief measures, she said.

Lam said a disciplinary investigation was still going on into the behaviour of 13 senior government officials who attended a birthday party for a delegate to China's legislature.

Two of the party guests tested positive for the coronavirus. read more

According to the latest findings, more than 200 people attended the party and the number might grow, Lam said.

"This is the most unfortunate event because of the large number of people involved," Lam said, adding the officials should have complied with her appeal for people to avoid large gatherings.

($1 = 7.7966 Hong Kong dollars)

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Reporting by Jessie Pang and Marius Zaharia; writing by Farah Master; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Robert Birsel and Ana Nicolaci da Costa

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