The Hong Kong government wants to roll out a free voluntary testing programme for Covid-19 to all residents in two weeks, with the help of the central government.
While details are sketchy, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said yesterday that the universal testing programme had to be safe, secure and carried out as soon as possible to detect silent transmissions quickly.
She said social distancing measures would be adhered to during the testing, and the government would try to make it convenient for people to pick up and return specimen bottles for throat swabs.
"I cannot allow thousands of Hong Kong people queueing up and crowding to await their turn to have a swab," Mrs Lam said, adding that the bottles' collection and distribution points would be separated.
More importantly, personal data would be protected, she said.
Laboratories conducting tests on specimens would not be given any personal information, and tests that turn up positive would be passed on to the Department of Health, which would have access to barcodes allowing it to identify infected people.
"So, if people still have concerns, they don't need to come forward," Mrs Lam said, adding that all the details for the programme had not been worked out, but rumours circulating on social media prompted her to "consider it necessary to come up and dispel any misunderstanding in the first instance".
Rumours have been rife in the past week that the seven-member mainland medical team, sent to Hong Kong to help conduct nucleic acid Covid-19 tests, were in the city to collect DNA samples from residents.
The government dismissed this last Sunday, hours after the team landed in Hong Kong, saying that all tests carried out in the city would meet all legal requirements and no samples would be sent back to the mainland.
Critics had expressed concerns as one of the mainland firms behind the testing, BGI Group, has been blacklisted by the United States following allegations that the group's subsidiaries had taken DNA samples from Uighurs in Xinjiang province in China for surveillance purposes.
BGI has denied the allegations.
Questions have also been raised about the qualifications of the mainland medical team, prompting Mrs Lam to stress that they are qualified in China and were thus given exemptions under Hong Kong law.
Previously, leader of the mainland medical team Yu Dewen told Xinhua news agency that he hoped to expand Hong Kong's testing capability to over 200,000 people a day, up from the 10,000 daily capacity.
Mrs Lam also confirmed that the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre would be turned into a laboratory and that about 60 staff from the mainland would be exempted from the mandatory 14-day quarantine to help local officials.
She said 1,000 beds would be added in the next few weeks to the AsiaWorld-Expo medical facility that was set up recently, while a temporary hospital would be built over the next few months on a 32,000 sq m site next to the convention centre.
When asked about the cost of the entire exercise, Mrs Lam did not give an estimate, but noted that the central government is chipping in.
Hong Kong saw a spike in Covid-19 cases last month, with 40 per cent of the sources of infec-tions unknown. The resurgence has put pressure on the city's healthcare system.
Officials have tightened social distancing measures in the past weeks as the pandemic shows no signs of easing, with civil servants told to work from home for another week and gyms and bars shut too.
The health authorities yesterday reported 89 new confirmed cases, bringing the total tally of cases in the city to 3,938, including 47 deaths. Among the new cases, 49 had links to patients while 32 were of unknown origin.