Hong Kong kindergartens and childcare centres to begin Lunar New Year holiday early as flu outbreaks spread
- Move draws widespread support from health care experts and kindergarten principals
- More than 35 per cent of preschools already hit by flu outbreaks
All kindergartens and childcare centres in Hong Kong will shut for the Lunar New Year holiday about a week earlier than planned in an attempt to curb the spread of flu, the government said on Thursday.
About 1,000 facilities will begin their holidays on Saturday after flu outbreaks hit more than 35 per cent of them.
Some 384 kindergartens and childcare centres have already been told to suspend classes for seven days owing to the rampant spread of influenza.
Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee made the announcement at around noon on Thursday after chairing an interdepartmental government meeting in the morning.
“We believe this decision will be a preventive measure for the current flu situation, in particular in kindergartens and childcare centres,” Chan said.
The minister said a basket of factors had influenced the decision, including the number of kindergartens and childcare centres hit by flu and admissions to paediatric wards at public hospitals.
The first day of Lunar New Year is on February 5, but some schools break up for the holiday earlier.
Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller at the Centre for Health Protection, said the flu situation at kindergartens and childcare centres was very serious and it was not known whether the seasonal peak had yet arrived.
He said the decision to close kindergartens early was not based on any specific standards or guidelines.
“Previously we have reviewed whether there are any guidelines to decide whether to suspend classes. But in terms of science or public health considerations, there isn’t an international standard,” he said.
Education minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said some kindergartens and childcare centres would remain open to help parents in need of childcare.
Kindergartens and childcare centres have reported 144 outbreaks since Sunday. Another 40 outbreaks have been seen at institutions such as elderly care homes.
An outbreak at a school is defined as three cases in four days.
Since the start of the winter flu season in December, 185 adults and 14 children have contracted flu classed as severe. Some 81 adults have died from the illness, most elderly. Nine of the children with severe forms were aged five or younger.
Wong said the number of children with severe flu was slightly higher than in previous years.
On Thursday night a boy aged just two years old was reported to be suffering from severe flu and was admitted to Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan and later transferred to Queen Mary. He was infected with the influenza A virus and was in a critical condition.
Dr Vivien Chuang Wai-man, the Hospital Authority’s chief manager of infection, emergency and contingency, said on Thursday afternoon that four other children were still in hospital. Two were in a very critical condition and the other two were stable.
The occupancy rate at paediatric wards in public hospitals this week has hovered at between 90 and 100 per cent, while for medical wards it was 110 per cent.
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a top infectious diseases expert at the University of Hong Kong, said the early kindergarten closures were justified, considering the number hit by flu and the occupancy rate of wards.
Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in the legislature, also agreed with the closures.
But he said “the situation shows we haven’t done enough against influenza”, noting it was the second consecutive year the holiday had been brought forward for flu prevention.
A similar arrangement was made for all primary schools, kindergartens and special-needs schools in February last year, after a high number of flu cases among schoolchildren.
Ip added that the government should extend its school outreach vaccination pilot programme for primary school pupils to include kindergartens.
Lam Chui-ling, principal of Tsuen Wan Trade Association Chu Cheong Kindergarten, said she approved of bringing forward the holiday, and many other kindergarten principals felt the same.
The sector as a whole had been prepared for the announcement, she added.
“We have already prepared necessary notices and assignments.”
The flu surge has meant a heavy workload for frontline health care workers. On Tuesday a group of doctors said they would hold a forum at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei on Saturday to voice their dissatisfaction.
Medical sector lawmaker Dr Pierre Chan, who is co-organising the event with two other doctors’ groups, said hundreds of doctors were expected to take part.
The action comes after the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff staged a protest over staff shortages on Sunday.