A travel ban that left thousands of domestic helpers stranded in the Philippines was lifted on Tuesday, even as a Filipino maid was confirmed to be infected with Covid-19 in the city for the first time.
There is also confusion over the terms and conditions as well as precautionary arrangements for their return, with workers’ unions objecting to the Filipino government’s requirement that they sign written declarations about coming back to Hong Kong at their own risk.
As the number of confirmed infections in the city rose to 62 on Tuesday, health authorities announced they would expand an ongoing surveillance programme and would hand out take-home testing kits to people turning up at public hospitals and outpatient clinics with minor flu-like symptoms so that cases could be identified earlier.
The 61st confirmed case was a 32-year-old Filipino woman who initially tested negative for Covid-19 but returned a positive result three days later. Her employer, a 67-year-old woman living in Quarry Bay, was confirmed to have the virus on February 13.
Health authorities revealed that the infected helper, now isolated at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan, had taken part in a gathering with 10 friends outside City Hall in Central on February 9.
She developed a fever and started coughing on February 2, but did not seek medical help until she was approached by health officials following up on her employer’s hospitalisation.
“She took some medicine and did not visit a doctor, thinking she had recovered,” Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan of the Centre for Health Protection said.
The maid’s employer was infected with the virus after having a meal with 28 other people last month in a North Point restaurant. The helper was not at that gathering and probably contracted the coronavirus at home, Chuang said.
The initial negative test result could have been due to the time lapse between the onset of symptoms and the collection of her samples for testing, Chuang explained. Another reason could be that the initial samples did not contain a detectable specimen of the virus.
Hours before the new cases were confirmed, undersecretary Dodo Dulay at Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a tweet: “[Overseas Filipino workers] returning for work in Hong Kong and Macau have been exempted from the outbound travel ban … subject to certain procedural formalities.”
He gave no details, but presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo sparked concern among migrant workers’ unions by stating that those returning to Hong Kong and Macau would be required to make a “written declaration that they know the risks of going back”.
Among those stranded in the Philippines was Marivic Domasig, 50, who could not return to Hong Kong as planned on February 5. Her employer had assured her the job would still be waiting for her when she was allowed back.
Shiella Estrada of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong was seeking more details.
“It seems that it only applies to those who already have contracts … And we don’t know if we are going to be quarantined or not when we arrive,” she said, also noting that it could be tough to get flights because of airlines suspending services to Hong Kong.
She cited estimates by various unions and rights groups that about 10,000 domestic helpers, residents and students were waiting to return to Hong Kong from the Philippines.