China eases flight curbs after United States targets its carriers

By Stella Qiu and Se Young Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) – China will ease coronavirus restrictions to allow more foreign carriers to fly to the mainland, shortly after Washington vowed to bar Chinese airlines from flying to the United States due to Beijing’s curbs on U.S. airlines.

Qualifying foreign carriers, about 95 of them currently barred from operating flights to China, will be allowed once-a-week flights into a city of their choosing starting on June 8, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said on Thursday.

But considering some countries are still banning international flights, it estimated the number of international flights would increase by 50 to 150 per week while the average of passengers arriving per day would rise to 4,700, up from around 3,000 now.

The CAAC said all airlines will be allowed to increase the number of international flights involving China to two per week if no passengers on their flights test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, for three consecutive weeks.

If five or more passengers on one flight test positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, the CAAC will bar the airline from services for a week. Airlines would be suspended for four weeks if 10 passengers or more test positive.

The CAAC has slashed international flights since late March to allay concerns over rising coronavirus infections brought by arriving passengers. Mainland carriers are limited to one flight a week on one route to any country and foreign airlines are allowed to operate just one flight a week to a city in China.

Carriers could also fly no more than the number of flights in a weekly schedule approved by the CAAC on March 12. U.S. passenger airlines already stopped all flights to China at that time, meaning they were unable to resume flights to China.

On Wednesday, the U.S. government said it would bar Chinese passenger carriers starting from June 16, pressuring Beijing to let U.S. airlines to resume flights.

The U.S. Department of Transportation could not be immediately reached for comment, though it has said it will reconsider the decision against Chinese airlines if the CAAC adjusts its policies affecting U.S. airlines.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said at a daily briefing on Thursday the CAAC is lodging a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation for the ruling against Chinese air carriers. He said the CAAC is in close cooperation with its U.S. counterpart about passenger flights.

“We hope the U.S. side will not create obstacles for the resolution of this issue,” Zhao said.

China suspended the entry of most foreigners in late March, meaning only Chinese nationals can enter on commercial passenger flights.

(Reporting by Stella Qiu, Se Young Lee, Huizhong Wu, Lusha Zhang and Cate Cadell; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Christian Schmollinger and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Hong Kong suspends four more border crossings to curb spread of virus

By Felix Tam and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China on Monday, leaving just three checkpoints open, but stopped short of demands for the entire border to be closed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which emerged in central China in December and has killed more than 360 people there and sent jitters through global markets.

Carrie Lam, chief executive of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, was speaking hours after more than 2,500 workers from the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) went on strike to call for the border to be shut and better protection for hospital staff, among other demands.

“We should be united if we have the same goal. At this critical moment, (some people are) taking extreme means and it is inevitable it will affect the rights of patients,” Lam said.

“Those using extreme means to try to force the government’s hand will not succeed.”

The Hospital Authority said those using extreme means “to try to force the government and Hospital Authority‚Äôs hands will not succeed”.

Striking workers at the Hospital Authority building booed as they watched Lam speak, calling her a liar and chanting: “Close all borders.”

The medical workers, members of the newly formed union, held a press conference shortly after Lam spoke and said they planned to keep up their strike action.

HAEA chairwoman Winnie Yu said she expected around 9,000 of the alliance’s roughly 18,000 members to strike on Tuesday.

Pro-democracy protesters have in recent months formed about 40 unions as a way to press their demands on the government and at least a dozen have come out in support of the HAEA’s strike.

Reflecting concerns in the broader business community, three-quarters of American business leaders polled said they wanted Hong Kong to shut the border with the mainland, according to a survey of 156 executives by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Lam has rejected calls to shut the entire border, saying such a move would be “inappropriate and impractical” as well as “discriminatory”.

By making it inconvenient for people to cross the border, Lam said she hoped it would help contain the spread of the virus although she does not “rule out future measures as the situation evolves”.

The health scare comes after months of at times violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong triggered by fears the city’s autonomy, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, is being eroded by Beijing.

China denies meddling and accuses foreign governments of fomenting the unrest.

The virus is expected to heap more pressure on the former British colony, which on Monday reported its economy contracted for the first time in a decade in 2019.

The HAEA’s five demands are for the government to close the border, distribute masks to the public, ensure that front-line medical workers have adequate supplies and protection, provide enough isolation wards for patients and guarantee no reprisals for strikers.

Panic-stricken residents have emptied shelves in major supermarkets in Hong Kong, stockpiling meat, rice and cleaning products as fears escalate over the coronavirus.

About 90 percent of the city’s food is imported, with the bulk coming from the mainland, according to official data.

Toy shop owner Lam Wa-yin, 45, said closing the border would intensify worries about supplies of staples.

“They’ve started rushing to buy supplies even before they fully close the borders,” Lam said.

“It’ll get worse if it is fully closed. Especially food. People have been rushing to buy oil, salt and rice, not to mention the face masks.”

(Reporting By Felix Tam, Joseph Campbell, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Yoyo Chow; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Situation at ‘boiling point’ at refugee center on Greek island: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Refugees and migrants from the camp of Moria stand in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions, near the city of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations refugee agency urged Greece on Friday to speed up transfers of eligible asylum-seekers from Aegean islands to the mainland, saying conditions at an overcrowded Lesbos reception center were “reaching boiling point”.

Lesbos, not far from Turkey in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was the preferred entry point into the European Union in 2015 for nearly a million Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis.

Those three groups still comprise more than 70 percent of those arriving in Greece, and typically have high recognition rates for their asylum claims, but the overall flow is far less than in previous years, UNHCR said.

Although 1,350 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to mainland sites in August, this failed to ease pressure as an average of 114 people arrived daily during the month, it said.

“The situation is reaching boiling point at the Moria reception identification center on Lesbos, where more than 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants are crammed into shelters built to accommodate just 2,000 people,” Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a Geneva briefing.

Some have been there for over six months and one quarter are children, he said. A reception center on Samos island holds 2,700, nearly four times the number it was designed for, while centers on Chios and Kos are at close to double their capacity.

“We are particularly concerned about woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting amongst frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psycho-social care,” he said.

Yaxley could not confirm aid agency reports of possible suicide attempts among youth at the centers but said:

“There are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues. The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment.”

The Greek government has made previous commitments to transfer people to shelters on the mainland, and has received European Union funding for it, Yaxley said.

But other EU countries must help “frontline states” including Greece, Italy and Spain who receive most of the refugees and migrants, he said, adding:

“The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation; it’s a question of political will.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)