Hong Kong primary schools and kindergartens to close on Thursday for early Lunar New Year holiday amid flu outbreak
City leader Carrie Lam says decision intended to ‘cut off the chain of infection’, but many parents upset at surprise announcement
All 1,600 kindergartens, primary schools and special needs schools in Hong Kong will close from Thursday in a rare move bringing forward their Lunar New Year holiday to stem the city’s flu outbreak.
The sudden announcement on Wednesday, after a cross-departmental meeting, left many parents unhappy about not having enough time to make alternative childcare arrangements.
“Schools and parents felt the announcement was made in a very hurried manner, and they did not know how to handle it,” Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in the city’s legislature, said.
The Education Bureau, under the advice of health experts, announced the closures on Wednesday, just days ahead of the festive break, which runs from February 16 to 19.
“After considering opinions and recommendations from experts, [the government] decided the Lunar New Year holiday will start earlier in kindergartens and primary schools,” Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller for the Centre for Health Protection, said.
Most schools were expected to close from early or the middle of next week, but that was brought forward a few days. Their holidays will end as planned, with the dates varying from school to school.
The move came after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor met University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung and Chinese University professor of respiratory medicine Dr David Hui Shu-cheong on Tuesday to discuss the flu outbreak.
Lam said on Wednesday that the decision by the Department of Health was designed to “cut off the chain of infection”.
“This year’s winter flu outbreak has had a big impact on children,” she said. “The decision was taken after I studied the matter with experts and colleagues.”
Lam promised that the government would come up with a “more effective” plan to minimise the impact of flu infections ahead of another expected outbreak in the summer.
“The flu virus will keep coming, and we need to be prepared,” she said.
Wong said the move would help reduce transmission of the virus.
“Most kindergartens, childcare centres and primary schools are in crowded conditions,” Wong said. “With this measure, called social distancing, we can reduce the close contact between students.”
Lee Kam-kwong, principal assistant secretary of school development at the Education Bureau, said letters had been sent to kindergartens and schools on Wednesday morning telling them of the arrangement.
“The holiday will start from tomorrow until the end of the individual schools’ original schedules for the Lunar New Year holiday,” Lee said on Wednesday.
Among flu patients admitted to hospitals, Wong said statistics from last week showed that children aged five or younger had the highest admission rate, at 8.44 per 10,000 people. It was followed by children aged between six and 11, at 3.64. The rate for senior citizens aged 65 or older was 2.87.
Between January 7 when the flu peak season began and Tuesday, there were 398 outbreaks of flu at institutions in the city. Of these, 41.7 per cent were in kindergartens and 42.5 per cent in primary schools.
So far, 12 children have come down with severe flu and among them, two have died. On Wednesday, a five-year-old girl was reported to be in a serious condition with the type B flu virus, the current dominant strain. She was being treated at the paediatric intensive care unit of Princess Margaret Hospital.
Some 203 adults also developed severe flu complications. Of those, 115 died. Some 96 were aged 65 or older.
Hong Kong last announced school closures during the 2009 human swine flu pandemic.
Lawmaker Ip said many teachers, educators and parents were upset with the short notice given for the suspension of classes.
“Today is a school day, but now they have to host emergency meetings to sort out issues to do with school buses, catering and administrative arrangements,” he said. “Some schools will have exams after the Lunar New Year holiday but have not finished their preparatory teaching yet.”
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Professor Yuen said the school closure was to prevent a further rise in severe cases.
“If we don’t take any action at this point, we are worried there might be more deaths or serious cases among children,” Yuen said, adding that the flu posed a bigger problem for children this season.
“An earlier Lunar New Year holiday for children could cut the transmission chain of the disease.”
He referred to schools in 11 states in the US closing recently due to widespread flu outbreaks.
The winter flu peak season, which is usually harsher than the summer peak in Hong Kong, usually lasts for three to four months.
While the current season is in its fifth week, Wong expected flu activity to remain at a high level for a while.
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung