Hong Kong Considers Even Tighter Virus Rules as It Battles Covid Surge

by BLOOMBERG / pic by AFP

HONG KONG is considering stricter social-distancing measures and preparing for a universal testing push to try to curtail an escalating virus outbreak that’s straining its health infrastructure.

The city doesn’t plan to reopen gyms and beauty parlors, which were set to resume operations on Feb. 24, and hasn’t made a decision on hair salons, Sing Tao reported, citing people it didn’t identify. Patrons may be capped at two per table for so-called category D restaurants, it said.

Officials are also ramping up preparations for the mandatory testing of all residents, a tactic used regularly in mainland China to contain outbreaks, but which would be resource-intensive at an unprecedented scale for the financial hub. 

“We have to closely look at the situation in the next week or two to decide how to contain it,” Edwin Tsui, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said at a briefing on Sunday. Among measures under consideration are having police perform checks on people’s vaccination status in shopping malls and further limiting dining-in at restaurants, he said.

The comments come ahead of the rollout of a vaccine pass on Thursday, which will see entry to a range of venues limited to those who are vaccinated.

The current wave of infections, by far the most severe of the pandemic, is testing Hong Kong’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus. Scenes of elderly patients lying on gurneys in the street because hospitals have no more space and frightened residents flooding emergency rooms have shocked the city, and drawn an unusually direct intervention from China’s President Xi Jinping.

Mainland Aligned

“Our measures, looking back, were not tough enough, not thought out enough,” Regina Ip, a lawmaker and member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Executive Council, said in a Bloomberg TV interview Monday. She said she expects the situation to be brought under control in about two months, ahead of the chief executive election which will now be held on May 8.

“We need to align our measures much more with the mainland,” Ip said, highlighting contact tracing, detection, and treatment. “We must move toward adopting a health code, which can be aligned with the mainland health code so that we can reopen with mainland China.”

Hong Kong’s former head of police public relations John Tse will take a leading role in the Security Bureau’s anti-epidemic task force, the South China Morning Post reported, citing people it didn’t identify. Security Secretary Chris Tang is overseeing the operation of community isolation facilities, and more than 1,000 retired disciplined-services officers have been recruited to staff them, the report said.

Last week, Xi called for Hong Kong officials to take “all necessary measures” in getting the city’s outbreak under control. The Chinese president said Lam’s government should make stabilizing the Covid-19 situation its top priority, according to Chinese media. The message left the city’s leaders even less room to deviate from China’s Covid Zero policy.

Hong Kong recorded 6,067 new coronavirus cases Sunday, 12 of them imported. There were 14 deaths, mostly among people aged 70 or over, and 10 critical cases. Officials didn’t give a number for preliminary positive cases, saying that it doesn’t accurately represent a trend because of a backlog in testing and that total daily cases present a clearer picture.

“We’re not trying to withhold information, we’re just trying to show you what’s useful in the case count,” Tsui said.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan told Commercial Radio Hong Kong earlier Sunday that there’s “definitely no room for relaxing social-distancing measures” currently in place, which include limiting the number of people allowed at gatherings and closing restaurants early.

Hong Kong plans to procure 100 million rapid antigen test kits in order to expand its testing capabilities, according to a government statement Sunday. Beijing supplied 10 million kits Saturday along with other medical supplies.

The Chinese government also commissioned a team from the mainland to build Covid isolation and treatment units. Lam attended a ceremony Saturday to mark the start of construction of facilities in Penny’s Bay, the city’s main quarantine camp. A total of 10,000 units will be built there and at Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.

“We are under a critical situation amid this smokeless battle,” Lam said. “We are sincerely grateful to the central government for its assistance which is stronger and speedier than ever.”

Some 20,000 more units will be provided at hotels, sports centers and newly completed public housing estates for people who test positive for Covid and have mild to no symptoms, the government said in a statement Saturday.