HONG KONG • Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Hong Kong will kick off a campaign to test its entire population for the coronavirus on Sept 1, in the first such effort attempted outside of mainland China.
Aided by Chinese experts and labs, the blitz will last for as long as two weeks.
All residents are entitled to a free, one-time test. Unlike similar mass testing drives in the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Dalian, this is on a voluntary basis.
"Hong Kong will be much better equipped to deal with the possible next virus wave now," Mrs Lam said yesterday afternoon.
She expressed gratitude to China, saying that Hong Kong would not have been able to conduct mass testing on its own.
The resource-intensive effort could help break hidden chains of transmission by detecting asymptomatic carriers, but it is unclear how many people among the city's population of over seven million will come forward for testing.
As China tightens its grip over Hong Kong in the form of a controversial national security law, the mainland-backed testing drive could provide a gauge of mass sentiment towards growing Chinese influence in the city.
"For yourself, for others, for public health, we hope more people can participate," said Mrs Lam.
"We've not set ourselves any target for total testing numbers. This test is completely voluntary," she added.
Early last month, after a long stretch of virus-free life, Hong Kong's worst outbreak emerged that now accounts for over two-thirds of its 4,600 cases in total.
After imposing its strictest social distancing measures, daily cases have steadily fallen, with 27 new infections reported yesterday.
The laboratory costs for this mass testing drive will be covered by the Chinese government while the Hong Kong authorities will pay for costs related to sample collection, transport and public promotion.
The Hong Kong government plans to set up various collection centres across the city's districts, and nasal and throat swab samples will be collected on site.
Samples will be discarded after tests are completed, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip said, and they will not be sent outside Hong Kong.
Activists had earlier raised concerns that China might use such a testing blitz to collect DNA data.
An online booking system is being introduced to avoid virus spread through overcrowding, and the duration of the testing drive can be extended to as long as two weeks based on the demand. Children aged under six will not qualify for this free mass testing.
Residents who test negative will receive a text message, while those with positive results will get a call from the health bureau to arrange for hospitalisation.