Hong Kong to offer free Covid-19 tests to all residents

Residents being given free coronavirus test kits by workers at a government clinic in the Kowloon-side Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong, on July 29, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - The city's government wants to roll out a free voluntary testing programme for Covid-19 to all residents in two weeks with the help of the central government.

While details are sketchy, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday (Aug 7) said the universal testing programme had to be safe, secure and carried out as soon as possible to detect silent transmissions quickly.

She said social distancing measures would be adhered to during the testing and the government would try to make it convenient for people to pick up and return specimen bottles for throat swabs.

"I cannot allow thousands of Hong Kong people queuing up and crowding to await their turn to have a swab," Mrs Lam said, adding that the collection and distribution points of the bottles would be separated.

More importantly, personal data would be protected, she said.

Laboratories conducting tests on specimens would not be given any personal information and tests that turn up positive would be passed on to the Department of Health which would have access to barcodes allowing it to identify infected patients.

"So if people still have concerns, they don't need to come forward," Mrs Lam said, adding that all the details for the programme had not been worked out but rumours circulating on social media prompted her to "consider it necessary to come up and dispel any misunderstanding in the first instance".

Rumours have been rife in the past week that the seven-member mainland medical team sent to Hong Kong to help conduct nucleic acid Covid-19 tests, were in the city to collect DNA from residents.

The government dismissed this on Sunday , hours after the team landed in Hong Kong, saying that all tests carried out in the city would meet all legal requirements and no samples would be sent back to the mainland.

Critics had expressed concerns as one of the mainland firms behind the testing, BGI Group, has been blacklisted by the United States following allegations that subsidiaries of the group had taken DNA from Uighurs in Xinjiang for surveillance purposes. BGI has denied the allegations.

Questions have also been raised about the qualifications of the mainland medical team, prompting Mrs Lam to stress that they are qualified in China and were thus given exemptions under Hong Kong law.

Previously, the leader of the mainland medical team, Yu Dewen, told Xinhua News Agency that he hoped to expand Hong Kong's testing capability to more than 200,000 people a day, up from the 10,000 daily capacity.

Mrs Lam also confirmed that the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre would be turned into a laboratory and that about 60 staff from the mainland would be exempted from the mandatory 14-day quarantine so that they can help local officials deal with the situation.

She said 1,000 beds would be added in the next few weeks to the AsiaWorld-Expo medical facility that was set up recently, while a temporary hospital would be built over the next few months on a 32,000 sq m site next to the convention centre.

When asked about the cost of the entire exercise, the chief executive did not give an estimate but noted that the central government is chipping in to help.

Hong Kong suffered a spike in Covid-19 cases in July with 40 per cent of the sources of infections unknown.

The resurgence in cases has put pressure on the city's healthcare system.

Officials have tightened social distancing measures in the past weeks as the pandemic shows no signs of easing, with civil servants told to work from home for another week and gyms and bars shut too.

Health authorities on Friday reported 89 new confirmed cases, bringing the total tally of cases in the city to 3,938, including 47 deaths. Among the new cases, 49 had links to patients while 32 were of unknown origin.

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