Hong Kong renews limited curbs as Covid-19 outbreak gains pace

The government is trying to balance the health of its people with its economic needs, officials said. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong has imposed a select set of measures to try to protect its most vulnerable from a surging Covid-19 outbreak that is putting the city's healthcare system under pressure and forcing the government to take action.

The Asian financial hub will expand testing across the city, while holding off on full-scale closures and tighter mitigation measures that China used to get outbreaks under control.

The government is trying to balance the health of its people with its economic needs, officials said.

Those who test positive for Covid-19 will be sent to isolation facilities with their families if any of them are at high risk and their living conditions do not provide adequate space, Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau said at the daily virus briefing on Friday (Aug 26).

Patients aged 70 and above who are not vaccinated will be sent to specialised venues that can cater to their needs, he said.

"Anyone who says that we can easily live with the virus now as other countries, I will say that I cannot agree with that," said Dr Lo. "As a responsible government, we have to protect the health of our people, even though they are our elderly. Every life matters."

No to 'very costly measures', for now

Recent moves to cut in half the amount of time travellers from abroad must spend in hotel quarantine to three days has not fuelled the increase and did not impact the epidemic, he said, showing no sign that additional travel restrictions may be needed.

Residents and visitors will need to produce negative results from rapid tests to enter more places, including banquets starting on Sunday, expanding the rule that currently applies to bars and other nightlife, he added.

The government cannot promise that additional measures will not be needed if cases continue to rise, particularly if there is another new variant, Dr Lo said.

Already, the rise of the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants are driving new infections, accounting for more than 45 per cent of daily cases now - up from less than 2 per cent a month ago.

The rise in cases means that further measures to reopen are not a realistic option at this point, he said.

Other social distancing measures that exact a higher cost remain on the government's list should infections increase to worrisome levels, though hopefully they will not be needed, he said.

"We will consider any solutions," he added.

"Some are very costly measures for the society, we will try not to use them. But if the situation is not ideal, we cannot rule out using them."

New cases at 10,000 a day

Transmission rates have picked up steam in recent days, so that the number of infections may double every two weeks, he said.

The total number of new cases could hit or pass 10,000 daily. The financial hub reported 7,835 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, up from fewer than 5,000 a month ago.

The increasing number of people entering hospitals every day has prompted medical centres to scale back non-emergency services and spurred the reopening of community isolation facilities.

Restoring virus-related restrictions will be seen as a step back for the Asian financial hub, which has struggled to balance reopening its borders with China's conservative "Covid Zero" approach to the virus.

New restrictions would further distance Hong Kong from other financial centres, including Asian rival Singapore, where nearly all pandemic measures, including mandatory mask-wearing in most places, have been lifted.

While cases and hospitalisations are rising, the number of people who are seriously ill remains low. There were 40 patients in critical condition and 13 in intensive care as at Friday. Another seven patients died.

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