Fewer than 1 in 10 choose to participate in Hong Kong’s free mass testing for Covid-19

The voluntary tests are part of an attempt to stamp out a third wave of infections that began in late June. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG - The government rolled out its free universal testing for Covid-19 on Tuesday (Sept 1), but some have called for a boycott of the voluntary mass exercise to try and identify those infected.

More than 650,000 people - about 9 per cent of the population - have signed up to get themselves tested as of Tuesday, Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip said.

As at 4pm, 82,000 people went through the test, of which 8,000 were walk-ins.

Of the 141 centres opened across the city, 97 centres were fully booked on Day 1 of the exercise, while 32 were fully booked for the week.

Mr Nip said additional appointment slots at the fully-booked centres would be added from Thursday (Sept 3) and the public can register from Wednesday.

Also at the briefing was Health and Food Secretary Sophia Chan who stressed this was a critical anti-epidemic measure. She noted that 2,000 medical staff are helping to take samples and another 2,400 have been deployed to support the team.

When asked about whether the sign-up rate is far short of the government's expectations, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said that "the universal community testing programme is a service meant for those who want to do it" and that there is no particular target number the government wants to achieve.

"There's also a service to enable us to identify the remaining infected cases in the community so that we could return to normal as soon as possible," the chief executive said, referring to the government's existing programme to test those deemed as high risk, including drivers and the elderly.

Mrs Lam reiterated that about a quarter of the confirmed Covid-19 cases are without symptoms and "that is a very worrying trend".

Hong Kong's daily confirmed cases have fallen steadily from the highs of over 100 a month ago after the government expanded social distancing measures drastically, including imposing a ban on dining-in services for dinner and making it mandatory to wear masks outdoors even while exercising.

On Tuesday, the health authorities said the city added 12 new confirmed infections, bringing the tally to 4,822, including 90 deaths.

The same day, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung announced that classes in schools will resume in two phases later in September.

On Tuesday, queues were spotted at some centres earlier in the day but others, such as Tseung Kwan O Sports Centre, were largely empty.

Ms Sandra Han, 26, a Tseung Kwan O resident, said there were more staff stationed at the centre than people taking the tests, adding that her experience was better than anticipated.

"I thought there might be a lot of people and I was worried about being infected there, but the waiting area, sampling area and registration area are far apart.

Besides, the sampling is very fast, less than five minutes from entering to exiting," said Ms Han.

The mass testing is being carried out with the help of a team from mainland China, with some pan-democrats and activists, including a hospital workers' union - the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance - calling for a boycott.

They said having large groups of people gathered in the centres could lead to more infection clusters and that the programme would not significantly ease the pandemic situation and could give people a false sense of security.

Previously, the government has had to dismiss rumours that the DNA of those tested would be collected by the mainland team sent over to help with the mass testing and sent to Chinese authorities.

Mrs Lam, who previously slammed the rumours as a smear campaign, said ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting that the purpose of the exercise has nothing to do with the government's popularity but is part of efforts against the coronavirus pandemic.

She added that there is a group that is trying "to cause worries and fears amongst the people so that they will have less confidence coming forward".

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