Coronavirus: Hong Kong has highest daily increase as thousands fly in to avoid self-isolation

20 March 2020, 13:42 | Updated: 20 March 2020, 16:11

Hong Kong has experienced its highest daily number of coronavirus cases as thousands of people flew in to avoid self-isolation just as it was starting to return to relative normality.

Despite sharing a border with southern China the small, but populous, semi-autonomous Chinese region has managed to keep the number of cases and deaths low, with 132 coronavirus cases confirmed before Sunday last week and four deaths.

However, after the Hong Kong government announced on Sunday it would be imposing a mandatory two weeks of self-isolation for anybody from overseas entering the city from Thursday, the cases have soared.

As of Friday afternoon there were a total of 256 COVID-19 cases, an increase of 124 in six days, with 48 confirmed on Friday - the highest daily number since the city's first case on 22 January.

Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection said 36 of Friday's cases - aged between four and 69 - had flown in over the past week, while a man who had not travelled is a taxi driver who regularly picks up passengers from the airport.

The centre's head of communicable disease, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, said all but one of the new cases - an Australian in transit - was a Hong Kong resident.

Most of them had come from the UK, Canada and the US, while others had visited other European cities and some Asian countries.

Thousands of students, expats and locals living and working abroad have scrambled back to the trasient city to avoid the new self-isolation rule.

Many had escaped Hong Kong when the virus hit in January, but as other parts of the world are now dealing with the pandemic, they are returning, especially from Europe, where Italy overtook China on Thursday in terms of deaths.

On hearing of the new self-isolation rules, Hong Kong's national airline, Cathay Pacific, added extra flights from London on 17-19 March as "many Hong Kong students and citizens are eager to come home as soon as possible", the airline said.

After two long months of isolating, working from home and businesses folding Hong Kong residents were just getting back to normal last week, with only one case a day on 12 and 13 March.

Leading microbiologist Ho Pak-leung, from Hong Kong University, said the city could have up to 200 cases of COVID-19 over the next two to three weeks from those who have arrived recently - as he likened it to a war.

Pete Ross, an artist from Hong Kong, told Sky News: "In the last four days Hong Kong has become quite tense again - self-isolating and events being cancelled.

"I run the Hong Kong Arts Collective, bringing local artists together, and we were due to open an exhibition yesterday but we cancelled the public opening.

"Instead we will show it online and arrange private tours.

"Public confidence was definitely up last week I would say, but it's now deteriorated."

Another Hong Konger said people had started venturing out last week and they had stopped wearing masks, but then "people started coming back from Australia, Europe and the US".

The government is desperately trying to prevent an increase in cases and has introduced tracking wristbands for all those coming into Hong Kong which are put on at the airport.

Travellers arriving at the airport also have to download an app on their phones which pairs with the bracelet so the department of health can identify those who are not keeping to the self-isolation mandate.