by Jerome Taylor
Hong Kong on Saturday began enforcing a mandatory two-week quarantine for anyone arriving from mainland China, a dramatic escalation of its bid to stop the deadly new coronavirus from spreading.
The new measures, which came into effect overnight, will see the vast majority of cases expected to self-quarantine.
But they will face daily phone calls and spot checks by officials, with up to six months in prison for those found to be breaching their isolation period.
Officials hope the new measures will virtually halt all cross-border traffic while allowing the city to remain stocked with food and goods from the mainland where the virus has now killed more than 700 people.
Cabinet ministers unveiled how the quarantine would work on Friday evening, just six hours before the new policy was due to come in.
Hong Kong residents arriving from mainland China will be allowed to self-quarantine at home. Chinese and international visitors will be able to self-quarantine at hotels or any other accommodation they have arranged.
Those without pre-arranged accommodation will be taken to temporary facilities prepared by the government.
Anyone who has been to mainland China in the past 14 days and then flies into Hong Kong from another destination will also be quarantined.
The city is planning to use an army of volunteers from the civil service and some students to make the spot checks and daily calls to ensure people are staying at home.
“We will be stopping a lot of people with the new measures,” Security Minister John Lee said.
The South China Morning Post reported long queues on Friday night in Shenzhen, as people rushed to beat the midnight deadline before the new quarantine rules came into effect.
At the Shenzhen Bay border crossing on Saturday morning, police told AFP just three people had crossed into Hong Kong in the first 90 minutes of the bridge opening.
The new regulations have been enacted under a sweeping emergency law that allows city leaders to bypass the legislature during a disease outbreak.
Exemptions would be made for a variety of key jobs, including flight and shipping crews as well as cross-border truck drivers to ensure goods and food keep coming into the city.
Hong Kong has firsthand experience of a deadly outbreak when SARS swept through the city in 2003 killing 299 people.
The epidemic left profound psychological scars and saddled residents with a deep distrust of authorities in Beijing who initially covered up the outbreak.
In the last week, the city has been hit by a wave of panic-buying with supermarket shelves frequently emptied of staple goods such as toilet paper, hand sanitiser, rice and pasta.
The government has blamed unfounded rumours of shortages, saying supplies are stable.
“The problem of supply shortage doesn’t exist,” said Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung.
The latest figures from China show there are more than 34,000 people infected there.
Outside mainland China, there have been more than 320 infections reported in two dozen countries.
Hong Kong has 25 confirmed cases with one patient who died earlier this week.
Many of the newer infections have no history of travel to mainland China, prompting fears that the city now has a local self-sustaining outbreak.
There have been growing calls for the border with China to be sealed entirely.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leadership, which has record low approval ratings after months of pro-democracy protests, had been reluctant to make such a move.
But they gradually shut all but two of the land borders to the mainland while keeping the airport open. In the last two weeks, daily arrivals have plummeted some 75 percent.