Hong Kong will offer free virus tests to all residents, the city’s leader said on Friday, a move that reflects the powerful boost that mainland China has provided to its containment efforts.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Hong Kong will launch a one-time free, voluntary virus test for residents as a way to identify asymptomatic carriers that are spreading the virus silently. She said the testing blitz will begin in a week or two, and that China will also help to build a new makeshift hospital as the city’s health system comes under strain.
“It’s time for us to do more universal testing,” Lam said at a press briefing Friday afternoon. “But if we have to do it, we need to increase testing capacity in a short time.”
Hong Kong’s rapid shift from inadequate testing capacity to being able to provide its over 7 million residents with free tests is driven by help from mainland China, which sent a team from Guangdong province about a week ago to aid in the city’s worst outbreak ever. But the offer has been complicated by deep political mistrust after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which has already been used to target key pro-democracy activists.
The Guangdong team vowed to boost Hong Kong’s testing capacity by 20 times, setting a goal of processing 100,000 to 200,000 tests a day in a video interview released by state media on Monday. Actual capacity now appears to be able to surpass that, as city officials expect to test 400,000 samples per day, local media outlet HK01 reported earlier on Friday.
Hong Kong reported 81 new local infections Friday, among which 32 are of unknown origins. New virus cases in the city have fallen from their peak after strict social distancing measures were implemented and daily tallies have stayed below 100 this week.
The Asian financial center has been battling a fierce resurgence over the past month and its health-care infrastructure and testing capacity have quickly come under strain, with isolation beds and wards in public hospitals nearing their limits. The death toll in Hong Kong has also jumped as the new wave infects older people compared to previous outbreaks.
The mainland-sponsored testing push has fanned suspicions that authorities will collect DNA samples from residents, as local law enforcement recently did with protesters who were arrested. The tactic is also deployed frequently by police in Xinjiang and elsewhere on the mainland.
The Hong Kong government denied that there are plans to harvest DNA, saying that the claims are unfounded and that test samples will not be transported to the mainland.
“We are talking about lives here,” Lam said. “So I hope people will bear in mind scientific evidence and facts, and not resort to conspiracy theories, and smear every effort indiscriminately.”
Local media Ming Pao reported Monday that China wanted Hong Kong to conduct mandatory testing of the entire population but the city’s government and experts blocked the proposal, citing unidentified sources.
Some local District Council members had led demonstrations outside the hotel where the mainland testing support team is staying and at the locations of their site visits this week. The Hong Kong government said that this disregarded “public interest, health and safety” in a statement on Wednesday.
China will help Hong Kong to add 1,000 isolation beds to its existing facility as well as to build a two-story makeshift hospital providing another 800 to 1,000 beds, the city’s officials said on Friday.
Despite tightened measures that have banned public gatherings of more than two people not from the same family, Hong Kong has been reluctant to impose a lockdown, given deep inequality — more than 200,000 people live in sub-divided units without private toilets and kitchens.
“Under the current restrictions, citizens are already feeling tired by measures to combat the pandemic,” Lam said on Friday when asked about the possibility of a lockdown. “If we have to ban people going out on the street, we have to ask whether citizens will accept it and if the government is capable of enforcing that law.”
— With assistance by Felix Tam, and Iain Marlow