HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong's government said any decision to impose a Covid-19 lockdown would take into account the global financial hub's status and ensure basic needs, and it urged anxious residents who thronged supermarkets this week not to panic.
Health authorities are due to report more than 50,000 new infections on Wednesday (March 2), setting a new daily record, broadcaster TVB reported.
Infections have surged since the beginning of February when there were about 100 daily cases.
The government said it was still planning and "refining" a compulsory mass Covid-19 testing scheme and would announce details when they had been confirmed.
The government would "safeguard the status of Hong Kong as a financial centre when implementing the Compulsory Universal Testing scheme (CUT)", it said.
"The experience of implementing a CUT initiative in other parts of the world shows that the basic needs of citizens such as food, necessities and the seeking of medical attention outside home should be addressed."
The government statement, released late on Tuesday, comes amid widespread confusion and chaos with many residents frustrated with the mixed messaging and almost daily tweaking of coronavirus rules.
Leader Carrie Lam had previously said that a citywide lockdown and compulsory testing were not being considered.
However, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said on Monday a lockdown had not been ruled out, fuelling rumours and sparking a rush for groceries, pharmacy products and banking services.
Hong Kong has stuck firmly to a "dynamic zero" coronavirus policy, like in mainland China, seeking to stamp out all outbreaks with sweeping restrictions and quarantine.
But the highly infectious Omicron variant of the virus has breached defences time and again and some business leaders and medical experts have questioned the sustainability of a zero Covid policy as cases surge.
Hospitals and mortuaries are operating at maximum capacity as deaths climb.
Authorities have been racing to build tens of thousands of isolation units to quarantine those with mild or no symptoms, further worrying some residents who see the rest of the world choosing a "live with the virus" approach, relying on high levels of vaccination and mitigation measures such as masks to try to pull through their Omicron surges.
The former British colony has reported more than 238,000 coronavirus infections and about 1,000 deaths since the pandemic began in 2020. About 600 of those deaths have been in the past week, with the majority unvaccinated people.
Health experts from the University of Hong Kong said there were about 1.7 million people already infected as of Monday, with a peak of about 183,000 daily infections expected in the coming week.
Prominent businessman Allan Zeman said in a letter circulated online that Hong Kong's international reputation had been "very damaged" and the confusing messages from the government were creating "widespread panic".
"There are too many rumours floating around and such a feeling of uncertainty," Mr Zeman said in a letter addressed to Ms Lam.
He said he was worried that Chinese-ruled Hong Kong's role as an international city with its "one country, two systems" formula could disappear.
"China needs an international Hong Kong and not just another city of 7 million people," he wrote.
"We need very clear messaging giving people hope and direction for an end to this nightmare."
Mr Zeman verified the letter to Reuters but said it was private and not meant to be circulated.
Worries over the planned mass testing scheme sparked concerns many people will be forced to isolate and families with members testing positive would be separated.
The United States Consulate General for Hong Kong and Macau issued a travel advisory update on Wednesday urging people not to travel to Hong Kong due to Covid-19 and related restrictions, "including the risk of parents and children being separated".
Separately HSBC told staff in an internal email seen by Reuters, that they must have a valid vaccine pass by March 28 to enter the company's premises. An HSBC spokesman confirmed the contents of the memo.