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Victor Lam apologised for the issues with the implementation. Photo: Winson Wong

Coronavirus: Hong Kong government scrambles to fix glitch in quarantine wristbands after only a third of tracking devices work

  • Many travellers told to self-isolate have complained they never received the SMS message to initiate a smartphone app connected to the wristbands
  • Chief information officer apologises and says staff will work out kinks in the system, with authorities later saying all users have received the messages

Only a third of tracking wristbands given to quarantined arrivals at Hong Kong’s airport could be activated and it took hours before authorities said they had rectified the situation by Friday evening.

Earlier in the day, Victor Lam Wai-kiu, the government’s chief information officer, admitted only some 2,000 of about 6,000 digital bracelets given to users could work, raising doubts over the efficacy of the home-isolation system intended to stem the tide of imported coronavirus infections.

He apologised for the issues with the implementation.

The wristbands were part of the fight against the pandemic, since quarantine measures were extended to cover all travellers from overseas.

By evening, a spokesman for the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer said the total number of wristbands handed out as of noon was more than 7,400, and most of the activation issues were fixed.

“With more manpower deployed and workflow streamlined, the office has already sent out SMSs [to activate the wristbands] to all persons entering Hong Kong via the airport by noon today,” he said.

Thousands of travellers arriving at the city’s airport had been given the devices – intended to make sure they stayed at a designated address – and were asked to download a mobile app connecting to them. But many complained they had not received an SMS message that comes with a password to initiate the app.

“We are sorry because the workflow had to be implemented within a very short period of time, so there is some delay. So some people who arrived in Hong Kong yesterday could not receive the SMS message. We will send the messages to them today, bit by bit,” Lam told a radio programme earlier on Friday.

Brushing off worries the delay would mean travellers extending their 14-day quarantine period at home, he said the isolation would start the day they arrived, not when they received the message.

Hong Kong is facing a resurgence of imported coronavirus infections. About 92 per cent of the 88 new cases in the past two weeks had links to overseas travel.

On Friday, 48 new cases were confirmed, taking the city’s total to 256.

A day earlier, all arrivals from overseas were put on 14-day self-isolation at home or in a quarantine centre, followed by two weeks of medical surveillance. Arrivals from mainland China were already required to self-isolate at home.

Hong Kong airline suspends flight operations amid poor demand and travel restrictions

After visiting the airport, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Thursday night that the quarantine measures’ expansion had been generally smooth. But she warned the threat of transmission of the virus to Hong Kong from overseas was huge.

Victor Lam said the delay was because officers needed some time to put data from the physical quarantine orders into the computer system, so authorities would add more manpower to carry out the work.

Chris Hewison, who just returned to his home in Hong Kong from the United States, said he had tried for two days to fix his wristband problems by contacting the government hotline, but no one answered his call.

“When you select English on the app, the screens are still in Chinese. I had to send screenshots to my friend to help me translate it,” he said.

On Friday evening as the government claimed all activation SMSs had been sent, some users were still encountering problems.

A mother of three high school students who came back from Canada said they still had not received the government phone message, 24 hours after they arrived on Thursday night.

The mother, who only gave her name as Thai, said while her children were happy to be quarantined, it was a little disappointing that the system did not start smoothly.

“However, it’s understandable – it’s a big IT project to get all this under way. I just hope that no one is taking advantage of the fact that it isn’t working properly yet,” she said.

And wristband trouble was not the only passenger gripe.

One traveller, Vik, who arrived at Hong Kong airport on Thursday morning from Myanmar, said her fiancée, who had a mild cough and a sore throat, was taken to a small waiting room at the airport. He waited about 30 hours to be tested, with only crackers to eat. He was eventually tested at noon on Friday.

“When I asked what airport officials were doing about this, their only answer was ‘wait a while’,” the beauty therapist, 30, said, adding that there was “no reassurance that there will be any food at the hospital or resolutions in sight”.

She said the government could have provided better conditions for people waiting to be tested at the airport.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, speaking on the same radio show as Victor Lam, criticised the government’s handling of the situation.

“To what the government has done in these two weeks, I give zero marks,” he said.

Tien said he understood the officers had not tested the wristbands in stock before, though Victor Lam earlier said they had tested the system for travellers at the port of the city’s cross-border bridge.

“If they have tested it at the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, then why now are there such embarrassments?” Tien asked.

He called on the government to follow Macau’s lead and ban non-residents from entering the city from abroad.

But Carrie Lam on Tuesday said her administration would not impose such a ban, because it needed to allow the city to continue and business to resume, lest the economy take more of a hit than it already has.

From Friday, airport arrivals with upper respiratory symptoms will be sent to test centres at the nearby AsiaWorld-Expo or North Lantau Hospital for viral tests, and to await the results.

Health authorities estimated that it would take about half a day to a day to arrange the delivery and tests of specimens.

Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, approved of the new measure, saying it could help reduce the pressure of other public hospitals.

But Tien said facilities would not be able to cater to all who needed the tests, adding that the government still had not talked to the 14 hotels which wanted to provide quarantine rooms for new arrivals.

Separately, commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah told reporters, however, that officials had been in touch with the hotel sector, noting businesses might not be willing to provide whole buildings for quarantine purposes.

He said the government would welcome the sector’s help if members felt comfortable to serve some travellers, but the establishments had to meet requirements of the Department of Health.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ACTIVATION glitch hits tracking wristbands