HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government moved overnight in a multi-bureau effort to place parts of Jordan, a neighbourhood on the Kowloon Peninsula, under lockdown for mandatory testing as the pandemic situation remains worrying.
This is the first time the government has imposed a lockdown, albeit on a small scale, since the pandemic began.
People in the specified restricted area in Jordan, bounded by Woosung Street to its east, Nanking Street to its south, Battery Street to its west and Kansu Street to its north, have to stay in their premises and undergo compulsory testing.
Anyone who has been to the restricted area for more than two hours in the past two weeks must also go for testing by the end of Saturday (Jan 23).
Speaking to reporters in the afternoon after an inspection of the area, Chief Executive Carrie Lam asked the public for their understanding for any inconveniences or confusion caused given the nature of the exercise.
Arrangements have been made for people who were affected by the lockdown and who do not live in the area to rest in a dedicated place, she said.
Mrs Lam noted that it is the first time the government has resorted to a lockdown but stressed that it is unlike those in other countries.
"I must make it very clear that what we are doing is not what people see in other places as a lockdown because a lockdown normally means you're not allowed to go out for a period.
"But in our case, this prohibition is linked to the tests... So it is for the purpose of compulsory testing," she said, when asked if she is under pressure from Beijing to adopt such an approach.
Mrs Lam added that she has also asked for support from Beijing on the topic of vaccine.
Earlier this week, the advisory panel recommended the government approve the use of vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca, with the former expected to arrive in Hong Kong in late February.
In a statement issued early Saturday, the government said it aims to wrap up this exercise in 48 hours so as to "achieve the goal of zero cases in the district" and allow residents to get to work by 6am next Monday.
It said outbreaks in the district remained severe.
From Jan 1 to 20, the Jordan specified area recorded 162 confirmed cases, involving 56 buildings.
"In the past few days, the ratio of the sewage samples found in the buildings located in the restricted area being constantly tested positive was higher than that of the other areas of the Jordan specified area, which implies possibly infected persons might be present at those places," said the government.
It added that the buildings in the Jordan restricted area are old and lack maintenance and sub-divided units are common so infection risks are high.
"After risk assessment, we think it is necessary to issue a restriction-testing declaration for the restricted area to break the transmission chain in the district and dispel the worries of residents in the district," the statement added.
The government appealed to employers to be understanding, adding that it hopes the "temporary inconvenience will completely cut the local transmission chains" and ease residents' worries and fear.
At a morning briefing on Saturday, Secretary for Health Sophia Chan, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam Sing and Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui stressed that the exercise was necessary to stop transmissions.
As of Saturday, working staff had visited more than 3,240 households and 6,900 residents in the area had been tested. Testing will continue on Sunday.
"There's a chance some people are in the incubation period so we will not rule out conducting a second round of testing. We will consider this and because of the incubation, some people in this area may already have been tested but we will require everyone in this area to undergo tests anyway," Prof Chan said, adding that there are 51 testing stations in the area that will operate till midnight.
Only those with confirmed results can leave the area while those found positive will be sent to the hospital, she said.
Mr Tsui said more than 3,000 staff from multiple bureaus have been mobilised for this exercise and they will go from door-to-door to find residents to be tested.
He added that if any resident has emergency needs such as medication or food, government officials at the scene will render assistance.
Overnight on Friday, workers started loading food and cleaning supplies to the area as officials cordoned off the restricted zone and set up temporary specimen collection stations.
At 11.30pm, some residents in the area were seen "fleeing" with their luggage and pets, local media reported.
This came after news was leaked earlier in the day about the pending lockdown, but health officials did not comment when asked at the daily briefing.
The confusion was apparent as media reported that there were residents who wanted to retrieve their goods and pets in the restricted area but were left stranded, saying they were not informed.
Hong Kong recorded 81 cases on Saturday, of which 78 are local, 35 are untraceable and 21 are from Yau Tsim Mong, while six are from Sham Shui Po. This brings the tally to 10,009 cases and 168 deaths.
Health officials on Friday said at the daily briefing that there were more than 50 preliminary cases.
In the past two weeks, more than 20,000 people have been tested at Yau Ma Tei testing centres.