Coronavirus: Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam denies extended crowd ban is political move

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said there are likely some asymptomatic transmission of the virus.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said there are likely some asymptomatic transmission of the virus.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's leader signalled that the city would extend social-distancing measures, despite objections from pro-democracy groups that a ban on large gatherings was being used to suppress protests.

Chief executive Carrie Lam said before a regular meeting of her Executive Council advisory panel Tuesday (May 19) that Hong Kong needed to "remain vigilant" after new coronavirus infections broke a 23-day streak without local cases.

She denied that a desire to prevent gatherings, such as an annual June 4 vigil commemorating the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square activists, weighed on the decision.

"There's no political consideration at all on certain anniversaries or political gatherings and so on," Mrs Lam told reporters. "Our only consideration is public safety and public health concerns.

Measures that could be extended past Thursday include a ban on gatherings of more than eight people.

"There's no need to relax any measures, but there's no need to tighten any other measures," Mrs Lam said, citing medical experts advising the government.

The likely extension comes after Hong Kong, which avoided the full lockdowns of other big cities, relaxed some social-distancing measures, including earlier easing a ban on more than four people. The city also allowed civil servants to return to their offices after working from home.

Even though the city has seen few local cases, Hong Kong has continued to keep social-distancing measures in place at a time when the former British colony is seeing a fresh burst of anti-government demonstrations.

Some protesters have expressed fears that Mrs Lam's administration could continue imposing restrictions to suppress pro-democracy rallies and could prevent the annual June 4 vigil in Victoria Park, which usually attracts tens of thousands of people.

 
 
 

Mrs Lam said authorities haven't been able to trace the source of some recent infections and that was likely a sign there was some silent, or asymptomatic, transmission of the virus. However, she said it was probably impractical to wait a full 28 days without local transmission before deciding whether to relax measures.

The city will increase its testing capacity to conducting 7,000 tests per day - up from from around 4,500 now, Mrs Lam said. The government was still planning to follow through on its plans of a phased reopening of schools, she said.