Mass mandatory testing is planned to begin in mid-March as the region struggles to contain the Omicron wave.
Hong Kong has announced plans to roll out mandatory COVID-19 testing starting next month, requiring three rounds of testing for each of the densely populated city’s 7.4 million residents.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the testing regime at a briefing on Tuesday, where she announced a slew of tough new restrictions in response to a record surge in coronavirus cases that have overcrowded hospitals and patients waited in the streets.
Officials from the mainland will come to help, she said.
“The rapidly deteriorating epidemic has far exceeded the Hong Kong government’s ability to respond, so support from the central government is desperately needed to fight the virus,” she told reporters.
Hong Kong is home to some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, with many families living in small apartments in high-rise towers.
“The next one to three months will be critical in fighting the pandemic,” Lim said.
Since it first emerged two years ago, Hong Kong has relied on punitive border controls, quarantines and an effective test-and-trace system to control the epidemic, following China’s zero-coronavirus strategy.
But Lam’s government appeared to be caught off guard by the Omicron variant, which slipped past Hong Kong’s defenses earlier this year.
Amid unprecedented pressure on public hospital wards, it faces a backlog of tests and a severe shortage of quarantines despite requiring people to quarantine in government-run centres when they are diagnosed with the virus.
Under the new rules, all residents will have to undergo three rounds of mandatory testing in March, although Lin did not give a start date.
The tests will be rolled out over a few days, and residents will also have to take multiple daily rapid antigen tests at home.
“Those who do not undergo universal testing will be held accountable,” Lim warned, adding that there is no guarantee that these steps will completely wipe out the current outbreak.
A number of businesses including schools and gyms, bars and beauty salons will be closed until late April, and educational facilities will be turned into local exam centres.
Gatherings of more than two people are prohibited.
Flights from nine countries, including the UK and the US, will continue to be banned.
(Did you mean England?)
Lin reiterated the city’s “Dynamic Zero Covid-19,” which mimics China and aims to eradicate any outbreak at all costs. She has repeatedly thanked mainland authorities for their “firm support”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told her government last week to take “all necessary measures” to contain the virus.
Authorities are not considering a city-wide lockdown, she said.
Hong Kong reported 6,211 new cases, 32 deaths, and 9,369 initial positive tests. The backlog of tests means they don’t get the full picture, they said.
A new modelling by the University of Hong Kong estimates that the current outbreak will peak in March, with about 180,000 new cases reported each day and nearly 100 deaths.
Hong Kong has struggled to get people vaccinated, especially the elderly.
On Tuesday, health officials revealed that of the latest wave of 102 deaths, only seven had received two doses of the vaccine, while 63 were from nursing homes.