'It's a waste of time': Confusion, frustration over Hong Kong's Covid-19 testing orders

Local reports say the wait could go up to eight hours, triggering altercations when testing sites close for the day. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - After a two-hour wait at a Wong Tai Sin testing centre, it was finally Ms Harriet Chim's turn to get tested for Covid-19 as part of a government decision to aggressively test for the virus.

"The wait was better than I expected. I don't know how you can do this but I spotted a lady in 1.5-inch heels in the same line," said the 43-year-old merchandiser, who got her negative results three days later.

The Hong Konger is among the hundreds of thousands of the young and old who joined snaking queues in districts islandwide this week for mandatory testing after traces of the virus were detected in sewage samples from buildings.

While she did not mind taking the test for good measure, she said the arrangements were "messy" and could have been better.

"I do think it's a waste of time because most people are not infected and there's a real risk of getting the virus while lining up with so many people. This is especially bad for the vulnerable group - the weak and the elderly," said Ms Chim.

Local reports said the wait could go up to eight hours, triggering altercations when testing sites close for the day.

A video circulating online showed upset residents confronting the police and staff of a Tai Wai testing station on Wednesday night (Feb 9) after they were told to come back the next morning to get tested. That same night, Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologised in a Facebook post, saying she was deeply sorry and anxious about long queues at testing centres and isolation facilities.

The apology came as Hong Kong faces its most trying period in containing the Omicron-led outbreaks where cases have risen tenfold since Feb 1, testing the limits of the city's "dynamic zero" virus policy - an approach Mrs Lam steadfastly holds on to.

Some respite is expected after the mainland on Friday promised to fully support Hong Kong in its fight against the virus amid the stress on its healthcare and quarantine facilities.

Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee said on Saturday night that mainland Chinese officials have pledged to help boost Hong Kong’s testing and quarantine capabilities, as well as send experts, test kits and other related resources. The pledge came after Mr Lee led a delegation to the mainland to seek help to fight the virus.

For now, some in Hong Kong are grasping the opportunity to make money.

A post on online forum Lihkg.com said there have been advertisements on second-hand auction platform Carousell where people would offer to queue up for those who need to get tested - at a rate of between HK$80 and HK$160 (between S$14 and S$28) an hour.

"They risk their lives for an hourly rate of several tens. Even the shortest queue would take two to three hours," a netizen commented.

Scalpers, who would go early to the test centres to get ticket numbers and later sell them, were also reported. Now, the authorities hand out one ticket to each person.

Others like furniture outlet Pricerite seized the chance to offer packages for this occasion - a HK$99 set comprising a box of 30 masks, sanitiser spray, 10 hand warmers and a foldable chair - as one waits to get tested.

Daily infections have soared in Hong Kong, with cases hitting a peak of 1,514 yesterday, bringing the total to more than 20,000 cases and over 200 deaths.

Officials have tightened rules - the harshest so far - by capping public gatherings at two and limiting private gatherings at homes to people from only two households or home addresses.

From Feb 24, a vaccine pass will also kick in and unvaccinated residents will be banned from places such as restaurants, shopping malls and supermarkets.

Already, the vaccine pass is being tried out at restaurants or eateries where the staff have had two jabs and customers aged 12 and above have at least one shot.

But eateries are finding it hard to check both the LeaveHomeSafe app and vaccination record of every customer, while some customers are also unsure about the rules.

The mainland authorities have assured people that the supply of fresh food will remain constant, after earlier uncertainties triggered panic buying in supermarkets as more cross-border truck drivers were infected.

But bigger problems lie ahead for Hong Kong officials as vaccination rates of seniors remain a ticking time bomb.

The city this week added more deaths - the first ones in five months - all involving unvaccinated seniors above 70 years old.

So far, only 53 per cent of seniors above 70 have had at least one jab.

In all, 73.7 per cent of the 7.4 million population have had two shots.

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