(LANKAPUVATH | COLOMBO) –The entire population of nearly 7.5 million people in Hong Kong will have to undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing in March, the city’s leader has announced, as the territory grapples with its worst outbreak, driven by the Omicron variant.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said the population would be tested three times in March, and the territory’s testing capacity would be boosted to 1 million a day or more. “Since we have a population of some 7 million people, testing will take about seven days,” she said.
Testing would be scheduled based on residents’ birth year and they would need to make bookings beforehand, the government said, adding that masks and home testing kits would also be available between formal tests.
In the meantime, the decision to shorten the interval between second and third doses of Covid jabs would soon be announced, Lam said.
Hong Kong has some of the most densely populated districts on earth. Since 15 February, it has reported about 5,000 new daily infections, with the cases threatening to overwhelm its healthcare system.
The current surge of cases began at the beginning of the year. It has recorded nearly 54,000 cases and 145 deaths. This week, medical experts from Hong Kong University predicted new infections could peak at 180,000 a day next month.
Last week, Lam’s administration decided to postpone next month’s chief executive elections to 8 May because, it said, the administration’s focus now had to be on the fight against the pandemic.
Hong Kong’s ramped-up response this week came days after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, called on Lam to grasp the “overriding mission” of controlling the outbreak. According to pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong, Xi also expressed his “concern about the pandemic situation”.
In the past few days, authorities on the Chinese mainland dispatched epidemiologists, health workers and other medical resources to help contain the outbreak. In addition, a makeshift hospital is being planned in Hong Kong to treat Covid patients, with help from Beijing.
Hong Kong has largely aligned itself with mainland China’s “zero-Covid-19” – or “dynamic zero Covid” – policy, which aims to totally stamp out outbreaks, even as many other countries, including Britain, are shifting their approach to living with the virus and treating it as endemic.
But as tensions with the mainland remain, many in the territory are sceptical about a mainland-style mass lockdown. Lam said no such measure was being considered in Hong Kong because it was “not realistic”.
She also denied allegations of working under Beijing’s direct instruction. “I reiterate that the central government never issued any instructions on our anti-epidemic work,” she said. “The central government will offer support as needed or upon our request, but of course we will always exchange our views.”
The “zero-Covid-19” strategy means that Hong Kong authorities often take measures such as locking down residential estates for mass testing when positive cases are detected, imposing strict quarantine requirements on travellers and ordering the shuttering of businesses.
On Tuesday, Lam confirmed that flight bans would continue. She said the current barring of flights from nine countries including the US, Australia, Canada and the UK would remain until 20 April. After that, other countries might be added to the list.
In the meantime, measures such as a ban on dining at restaurants after 6pm and the closure of businesses such as gyms and bars will be extended until 20 April.
“This is not good news to the sectors affected, but really at this stage of the pandemic we have no choice but to take these measures,” Lam said. She said the city hoped to boost its vaccination rate to 90% by early March.
Other measures announced on Tuesday included ending the school year early and moving the normal July-August summer holidays forward to March and April so that schools can be turned into facilities for testing, isolation and vaccination.