Hong Kong steps up compulsory mass testing

The compulsory test will see residents tested three times. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Chief Executive Carrie Lam is bringing forward younger students’ summer break to free up schools for compulsory mass testing from next month and ramping up isolation, as Hong Kong’s Covid-19 death toll rises and the vaccination rate among the elderly remains poor.

Since the fifth wave of the pandemic started in December, there have been 145 deaths – almost 60 per cent of the total of the past two years, she said on Tuesday (Feb 22).

To end the outbreaks – as dictated by the “dynamic zero-Covid-19” policy similar to the mainland’s – kindergarten, primary and secondary students will now have their usual summer holiday in July and August brought forward to March and April, and it will last till April 18. Tertiary institutions are exempted. 

“We can use the campuses for compulsory testing,” Mrs Lam said in a briefing. 

All 7.4 million residents will be tested three times each at hundreds of testing centres to be set up across the city next month. More details will be announced later. 

They will get tested according to their Hong Kong identity card numbers and date of birth, and will have to make bookings to avoid queues.

In between these tests, residents are expected to monitor themselves daily with antigen rapid test kits provided by the government. 

The territory’s testing capacity will be ramped up from hundreds of thousands to one million a day.

Mrs Lam expects the city’s vaccination rate to hit 90 per cent for at least one dose by March, up from around 86 per cent currently.

The inoculation rate now of those aged 70 and above is about 60 per cent, while it is about 43 per cent for those aged 80 and above.

On the back of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calls for the Hong Kong government to clear the fast-spreading outbreaks led by the Omicron variant, city officials will also ramp up lockdowns of buildings, with operations expected overnight and in the afternoon.

With the help of developers and the mainland, Mrs Lam said Hong Kong will be able to add tens of thousands of isolation units comprising hotel rooms, public housing estates, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and Penny’s Bay quarantine centre and sports centres.

But the announcement did not go down well with some parents in social media groups.

“When will this madness stop? We’re going to have nightmares about having to spare 1.5 months to stay at home with kids without lessons,” said a mother of three known only as Ms Lee. “With the rest of the world opening up, there will be no international school teachers left to teach in Hong Kong come July.”

Currently, public gatherings are capped at two, private gatherings are capped at two households and dining at eateries is banned from 6pm to 5am. Most of the social distancing measures will be extended till mid to late April.

The vaccine pass plan that allows only those who are vaccinated to enter premises like malls and supermarkets kicks in  on Thursday, while the closure of venues such as beauty centres, cinemas and bars will last till April 20. 

The flight ban on nine countries including the United States, United Kingdom and Australia will be extended till April 20. 

Hong Kong on Tuesday added more than 6,200 new infections and over 9,300 cases that were preliminarily positive. This brings the total to more than 66,500 confirmed cases and over 330 deaths, with an 11-month-old girl being the youngest casualty. 

“On average, we experience an exponential rise every three days,” said Dr Chuang Shuk Kwan of the Centre for Health Protection yesterday.

There are now nearly 4,000 positive and preliminarily positive patients in public hospitals and isolation facilities, such as AsiaWorld Expo that takes in those with mild symptoms. About 1,900 are in Penny’s Bay quarantine centre, while more than 250 are at the Dorsett Tsuen Wan isolation facility. 

It is estimated that about 30,000 people are waiting to be isolated.  

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