HONG KONG - Civil servants in Hong Kong returned to working from home on Monday (July 20) as the city struggles to contain a surge in cases of the coronavirus that is spreading out of control in the territory, prompting schools to extend closures and pressuring testing facilities.
Health authorities at Monday's briefing said Hong Kong recorded 73 new confirmed cases, with 66 of them local transmissions in mahjong parlours and restaurants. This brings the total number of infections the city has seen so far to 1,958, including 12 deaths.
All public and private schools in Hong Kong will start their new academic year later, in mid-August, due to the new wave of infections, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said on Monday.
"We anticipate at this stage that classes of all schools, including international schools and kindergartens, which used to start their new school year early, would not commence earlier than August 17," he noted.
Schools would be notified on when they can reopen, as soon as the education bureau makes a decision after assessing the situation, Mr Yeung added.
Health experts have called for tougher measures, with at least one pressing the government to ban people from venturing out.
Covid-19 testing facilities in the city are swamped.
Many private hospitals, including Hong Kong Baptist Hospital, Gleneagles and Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital, were reportedly fully booked for either the day or the whole week.
The government had earlier on Monday appointed more private hospitals and laboratories to cater to the soaring demand for Covid-19 tests.
Hong Kong microbiology expert Yuen Kwok Yung warned on Monday in a local radio programme that the city might have to go into a partial lockdown if coronavirus cases continue to surge for the next one to two weeks.
"We might possibly need to lock down, not a lockdown of the whole city, but... close to a lockdown," Prof Yuen said.
The current outbreak could be due to failure of the border controls, including quarantine exemptions, he said, adding that numbers rose after Father's Day when social distancing restrictions were relaxed.
Other infectious disease experts said the onus is on people to take preventive measures to bring the situation under control.
Professor David Hui of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said members of the public had let their guard down recently and warned that public hospitals would be under immense pressure if the daily number of new Covid-19 cases hit three digits.
Despite the precarious outlook, new cases could drop within a week if anti-epidemic measures are tightened, Prof Hui told RTHK.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong University microbiologist Ho Pak Leung cautioned that the quarantine centres are almost full, with only 196 units left for immediate use.
The warnings from the experts who advise the government on the pandemic come after Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sunday described the situation as "really critical", with more than 500 infections confirmed in the past two weeks.
She announced a slew of measures, including a mandatory requirement to wear face masks when visiting indoor venues such as supermarkets and wet markets, as well as having civil servants work from home for a week.
This, after Hong Kong hit a record number of coronavirus cases in a single day at 108 on Sunday, of which 83 were local transmissions.
Last week, the government tightened measures as more clusters formed comprising eldercare centres, eateries and cab drivers.
These include shutting 12 types of venues, such as gaming centres, bars, gyms and nightclubs, for seven days. People have to wear masks on public transport or risk being fined, while restaurants can offer only takeaway services from 6pm to 5am. These measures have been extended for another week.