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LC Urgent Q3: Outbound Travel Alert

     Following is a question by Hon Paul Tse Wai-chun under Rule 24(4) of the Rules of Procedure and a reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Ambrose S K Lee, in the Legislative Council yesterday (March 16):


     Over the past two days, I have received requests for assistance from more than a hundred travellers who have booked tours to Japan or purchased their tour packages as well as from workers of the tourism industry. They expressed grave dissatisfaction with the Security Bureau's policy of not issuing a black travel alert for "the whole of Japan" even under the situation where tsunamis, aftershocks and radiation leak had occurred successively in the wake of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan. They also said that they kept calling the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong but their calls were unanswered as the lines were busy, and thus they had nowhere to turn to for assistance. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a)  of the specific reasons for not yet issuing a black travel alert for "the whole of Japan" to date;

(b) whether it has assessed how many Hong Kong tourist guides and travellers will go to Japan in the coming three months without coverage under the travel accident insurance and employees' compensation insurance policies (the travel insurance policies of many insurance companies are already rendered void under a red travel alert); and

(c) in the light of the worsening radiation leak in Japan, whether it has assessed how many travellers will need to undergo a radiation contamination check when they return to Hong Kong from Japan, and whether there are sufficient manpower and resources in Hong Kong to cope with the large scale check-up exercise to be carried out on returning travellers who might have been contaminated by nuclear radiation; if it has, of the outcome of its assessment; if it has not, whether such an assessment can be conducted immediately?



(a) The Outbound Travel Alert (OTA) System aims to facilitate Hong Kong residents to better understand the possible risk to their personal safety when travelling overseas. When a large-scale natural disaster or incident occurs elsewhere which may affect the personal safety of Hong Kong residents, the Security Bureau will assess the risk and consider the need for a travel alert. The main factors to be taken into consideration include: level of threat to personal safety; duration of the threat; whether the threat is targeted at tourists, etc. We will obtain information on the local situation through various means, including the Office of Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China in Hong Kong and the local Chinese Diplomatic and Consular Missions, the travel industry, consulates general in Hong Kong, as well as the overseas Economic and Trade Offices of the HKSAR Government. We will also make reference to the travel information and alerts issued by other countries.

     On March 11 (about 1 pm, Hong Kong time), a severe earthquake (magnitude 9) hit the coast off the Miyagi Prefecture in Japan, which caused a tsunami. The HKSAR Government issued a Red OTA for Japan on March 11. Since the earthquake, we have been closely monitoring developments. In view of the incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the HKSAR government on March 12 issued a Black OTA for Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, while Red OTA is maintained for the rest of the country. Taking account of the seriousness and uncertainty of the incident of the nuclear power plants in Fukushima Prefecture, the HKSAR Government decided on March 15 to extend the Black OTA from one prefecture to four prefectures (i.e. Miyagi Prefecture, Fukushima Prefecture, Ibaraki Prefecture and Iwate Prefecture), urging Hong Kong residents to avoid all travel to these prefectures. The Red OTA is maintained for the rest of the country, indicating that there is significant threat and residents should adjust travel plans and avoid non-essential travel. Those already there should remain calm and pay close attention to local government reports and related information.

     Based on international experts' advice, an evacuation or other special measures should only be targeted at the 20-kilometre zone around the nuclear power plant with radiation leak. The Japanese authorities have taken measures to evacuate residents within the 20-kilometre zone around the nuclear power plant and request residents living within the 20 to 30 kilometres range from the plant to stay indoors, which is consistent with the international standard. Currently, there is no indication that people in areas outside the Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki and Iwate prefectures are subject to any immediate threat to personal safety. Therefore, the HKSAR Government does not issue Black OTA for the whole country. In fact, the travel alert for Japan issued by the HKSAR Government is consistent with that issued by other governments.

(b) Under the Employees' Compensation Ordinance (Cap. 282), all employers are obligated to take out employees' compensation insurance policies for their employees, and ensure that the policies taken out can cater for their operational needs.  Employees' compensation insurance policies provide protection for all employment. We understand that the level of Outbound Travel Alert (OTA) generally would not affect the scope of protection by the employees' compensation insurance policies.

     The Labour Department advises that employers and employees should discuss and agree clearly on the terms and conditions of employment applicable to business visits outside Hong Kong in advance, in order to protect the rights and benefits of both sides and to avoid unnecessary disputes. In drawing up the arrangements and contingency measures for business visits outside Hong Kong, employers should give prime consideration to employees' safety and make reference to the OTA issued by the Security Bureau, and be considerate to the circumstances of individual employee by adopting a flexible approach.

     For the tourism sector, we have learned from the travel agents concerned and the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong (TIC) that travel agents will not compel employees to escort tour groups to places for which an OTA has been issued. Where necessary, the TIC would step in to mediate. The TIC has not received any request for help from tour escorts about escorting tour groups to Japan since the Government issued the OTA for Japan.

     On travel insurance, protection provided under insurance policies (e.g. coverage for medical expenses, personal accidents, travel delays, personal belongings) remains applicable and effective in cases of earthquake and tsunami.  In general, travellers who have taken out travel insurance will not lose their protection as a result of the Government issuing an OTA for Japan. The position of individual case will depend on the provisions of the relevant insurance policies. We encourage outbound travellers to take out travel insurance that meets their needs before departure and pay attention to the coverage provided.

(c) The Japanese Government has classified the event at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as a level 4 "Accident with Local Consequences" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). Based on international experts' advice, an evacuation or other special measures should only be targeted at the 20-kilometre zone around the nuclear power plant with radiation leak. According to the Japanese Government, the 20-kilometre zone around Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been cordoned off since March 12 and visitors were barred from entering the area. The risk of visitors in popular travel destinations, such as Tokyo which is 250 kilometres away from the nuclear power plant or Osaka which is even further away, contaminating from direct radiation should not be high. Therefore, it is not necessary to impose compulsory radiation check on travellers from Japan, and Hong Kong residents should not be over anxious.

     However, considering the possible concern of residents returning from Japan, we have, in conjunction with the Airport Authority, set up a health desk inside the restricted area at the airport. Travellers who are worried about their safety may seek assistance at the health desk.     

     In fact, to minimise the possible impact of any incident on Hong Kong's public health and safety, the HKSAR Government had put in place a Daya Bay Contingency Plan to handle nuclear power plant incident. The roles of all relevant departments in the event of a nuclear leakage incident are detailed in the Contingency Plan. The departments are equipped with protective gear that meet their operational needs and appropriate medication, which are available for use by frontline staff in need when necessary. We have been regularly inspecting and renewing all types of protective and inspection equipments. Drills on radiation leakage are also conducted from time to time to ensure the personnel of departments concerned are able to handle the incidents effectively. In light of the current nuclear incident in Japan, the HKSAR Government has immediately reviewed and confirmed that all concerned units have sufficient manpower, equipments and ancillary measures to handle any possible nuclear incidents in Hong Kong, including checks for entrants.

Ends/Thursday, March 17, 2011
Issued at HKT 01:08


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