Beijing said to back Hong Kong lockdown as Covid-19 crisis worsens

Hong Kong's outbreak has seen the financial hub go from a handful of Covid cases early this year to more than 7,000 a day. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese officials have told Hong Kong that they think a lockdown will be needed to contain surging Covid-19 cases, according to people familiar with the discussions, with the city's government conceding some kind of targeted stay-at-home restrictions may be necessary if the situation continues to spiral out of control.

The two sides have been meeting frequently to discuss Hong Kong's outbreak, which has seen the financial hub go from a handful of Covid cases early this year to more than 7,000 a day after the highly transmissible Omicron variant infiltrated its tight border and quarantine defences.

Mainland officials say their experience shows a lockdown will be more effective at containing virus cases in a shorter period of time, said the people, asking not to be identified as the talks are confidential.

While Hong Kong authorities insist a wholesale, full-city lockdown wouldn't be possible, they did say in the discussions that if the number of infections continues to rise so precipitously, curbs may be imposed on areas where cases are particularly rampant, the people said.

At this stage, Beijing is just making recommendations with decision-making in Hong Kong's hands, according to the people.

Over the past two years, Beijing has asserted greater control in the running of Hong Kong's affairs, adding a new National Security Office and imposing loyalty tests on politicians.

Hong Kong's Covid-19 crisis is raising questions about the zero-tolerance approach to the virus China has favoured since the pandemic's early days.

More contagious strains have pierced the Covid-free idylls Hong Kong and the mainland enjoyed for long stretches, and the restrictions required to continue keeping cases out are leaving them isolated as other parts of the world open up and live with the pathogen.

Still, Beijing sees its Covid Zero strategy as an ideological counterpoint to the US, which has the world's highest pandemic death toll, and President Xi Jinping has ordered Hong Kong to contain the outbreak using "all necessary measures."

Both the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, China's bureau overseeing policy for the two territories, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The city's density and political climate make a widespread lockdown untenable, experts argue, with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam saying Feb 15 the government "have no plans whatsoever to impose a complete, wholesale lockdown."

The comments were seen as leaving the door open to more targeted measures that could see apartment compounds or even districts of the city told to stay at home if cases in particular areas are deemed out of control.

A makeshift treatment area outside a hospital in Hong Kong on Feb 17, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Lockdowns have been a key part of the mainland's Covid Zero arsenal since the first outbreak in Wuhan, where residents were kept inside for months, in many cases not even allowed out for food.

The strategy has been widely deployed in China, with the central city of Xi'an emerging from a weeks-long lockdown in late January as cases dropped to zero.

A lockdown in the small south-western metropolis of Baise was lifted last week with the outbreak coming under control.

Still, Beijing hasn't locked down a city of Hong Kong's economic and political importance, preferring more targeted measures like frequent mass testing in the capital, Shanghai and to rein in a recent Omicron flareup in Tianjin, close to Beijing.

Hong Kong is planning a mandatory mass testing programme for the entire city, Mrs Lam has said.

Though there are concerns it will come too late, with new cases doubling every few days and local media reporting the push won't start until March.

The mainland has had success with mass testing initiatives when they're imposed after a single or few cases, not on an outbreak of the scale of Hong Kong's, which is now even bigger than Wuhan's back in early 2020.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.