2 former Cathay Pacific flight attendants convicted of breaching Hong Kong’s Covid quarantine rules while infected at start of fifth wave
- Pair’s actions late last year were thought to be the likely cause of the first Omicron cluster in city’s fifth wave of infections, its deadliest by far
- Carrier at the time came under fire and was accused of exploiting loophole, allowing staff on commercial flights to return on cargo ones and isolate at home
Eastern Court remanded Wong Yoon-loong and Nilsson Lau Kok-wang in custody pending next month’s sentencing, noting their offences were serious and warranted immediate imprisonment.
“You two have abused the rights and privileges given by the government [to be subject to] less stringent conditions [as] crew members of aircraft … [resulting] in infections of other people in Hong Kong,” Magistrate Edward Wong Ching-yu told the pair.
The ex-employees of the city’s flagship carrier were under medical surveillance for three weeks after they returned from the United States for the 2021 Christmas holidays.
The court heard they were told to stay at home until they cleared Covid-19 tests on the third day of arrival. The only exceptions were to carry out “necessary activities”, such as going to test centres.
But the defendants allegedly left their homes for non-essential activities while infected with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Wong Yoon-loong left his flat in Shek Tong Tsui to deliver a Christmas present to Lau at the latter’s home in Tuen Mun less than a day after he was ordered to self-isolate in the early hours of December 25.
Lau accompanied Wong to a bus stop that afternoon before visiting Tuen Mun Town Plaza to collect a parcel for his flat’s renovation works.
Two days later, Lau had lunch with his family at the Moon Palace restaurant in Kowloon Tong’s Festival Walk shopping centre.
Wong and Lau tested positive for Covid-19 on December 27 and 28 respectively.
In his verdict, the magistrate found it incredible and unreasonable for the two to think they had urgent needs to visit friends and eat in restaurants before they knew their Covid-19 test results.
Wong claimed he had been misled by Cathay’s internal guidelines, which purportedly did not ban such conduct during the first 14 days of quarantine.
But the magistrate said Wong had taken the advice out of context, noting it was in fact referring to permissible activities after one was cleared to go out.
Government epidemiologist Benjamin Fung Wing-fai, who was called to give evidence after the pair’s conviction on the consequences of their actions, said it was very likely the defendants were the cause of the first batch of Omicron patients discovered in the city early this year.
Fung said it was believed Wong first transmitted the disease to Lau, with the latter spreading the virus to nine others at the restaurant. However, he acknowledged there was no decisive evidence that could prove the theory beyond all doubt.
Defence counsel James McGowan highlighted the existence of Omicron cases in Hong Kong before last year’s festive season.
“News reports suggested these two defendants brought Omicron to Hong Kong. That’s not true. They were not responsible for the Omicron outbreak in Hong Kong,” the lawyer said.
“I have no comment on that,” the doctor replied.
In mitigation, McGowan stressed his clients had no intention to break the law and were sorry for their transgressions.
“I was given express instruction that they wish to apologise to the people infected by them,” he told the court.
The defendants will be sentenced on December 1 pending assessments on their respective backgrounds.
The fifth and deadliest wave of Covid-19 infections has claimed more than 10,000 lives as of Wednesday.
Hong Kong has logged nearly 2 million reported infections since the start of the fifth wave in late December, with health experts expecting the actual figure to be far greater.
Critics had lashed out at Cathay Pacific for allowing crew members serving on passenger flights to return to the city on cargo ones to avoid hotel quarantine in favour of home confinement.
The airline said in January the arrangement was “common practice” in the second half of last year to comply with public health regulations while keeping the city’s supply chains and cargo traffic operating safely and smoothly.
Hong Kong’s then leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vowed to penalise the carrier if it was found to have exploited the loophole for its staff, but no legal action has been taken so far.