Hong Kong lifts lockdown in densely packed district even as it warns of more mass testing

Civil servants in protective face masks and gowns enforcing a lockdown in Jordan, Hong Kong, on Jan 23, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG - Hong Kong has lifted a weekend lockdown forced on thousands of residents of an inner city area to test for the coronavirus, but officials did not rule out more of such operations in the future.

Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui said people declared Covid-19 negative were allowed from 6pm on Sunday to move freely in and out of the restricted area in Jordan, a densely populated neighbourhood in Kowloon Peninsula, which was locked down on Saturday.

Mr Tsui said the aim was to revoke the lockdown by midnight so that residents could go about their normal routines by 6am on Monday.

He urged those who had been to the restricted area for more than two hours in the past 14 days to go for tests or be subject to a fine of HK$25,000 (S$4,284) and a jail term of six months.

More than 7,000 people have been tested in the restricted area in Jordan - an area packed with old developments with cramped living conditions - that was locked down on Saturday for testing.

Of those, 13, or 0.17 per cent, tested positive for Covid-19, said Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan at last night's briefing, adding that the infections were linked to nine families.

Preliminary positive cases were taken to Hospital Authority facilities for isolation while about 20 close contacts are now in quarantine centres, even as contact tracing continues.

"If you look at the Hong Kong government's testing strategy, that is the compulsory testing, the target group testing, plus the voluntary testing, the overall positive rate is also 0.17 per cent so it is similar (to what we found in the restricted area in Jordan)," Professor Chan said.

She said the authorities would not rule out similar operations in the future, but noted that the current strategy of issuing notices to people for compulsory testing has been effective, with most people complying.

Experts however have questioned the need for more lockdowns, and suggested that targeted testing may be a more effective method.

Last Tuesday, officials designated a core zone in Jordan and Yau Ma Tei comprising at least 70 buildings deemed to have "appalling poor environmental hygiene" or no property management services. Residents had to have tests even though their buildings had no reported cases.

Mandatory testing was also expanded to nearby Sham Shui Po for buildings that had just one confirmed case in the past 14 days.

Health officials speaking to a resident as they continue testing for the second day in the Jordan area of Hong Kong on Jan 24, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Earlier yesterday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, who said more lockdowns could be implemented in other districts, told reporters that based on government data, there were about 8,000 people in the restricted area in Jordan.

He said the government was unable to determine the exact number who left the area before the lockdown on Saturday, but added that there "shouldn't be many".

Speaking after an inspection of the area, Mr Cheung said the lockdown reflects the decisiveness of the government in taking appropriate action and that it will learn from this experience to improve on "inadequacies".

The government drew flak for failing to show cultural sensitivity after Muslim residents were given luncheon meat in food packages, while some with no kitchens could not cook their instant noodles.

More than 3,000 civil servants were deployed in the effort.

Hong Kong recorded 76 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, of which 72 were local transmissions. This brought the tally to 10,085 cases and 169 deaths.

Among the confirmed local cases, 13 were from the Jordan restricted area and six from Sham Shui Po.

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