Restaurants and coffee shops could provide only limited services during the 'third-wave' epidemic in Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

The Hong Kong government on Tuesday unveiled its third round of Covid-19 relief measures that will cost HK$24 billion (US$3.1 billion) to support the jobless and companies hardest hit by the pandemic.

About HK$4.5 billion ($581 million) will be allocated to support corporations in 23 specific industries, including the retail and tourism sectors, said Financial Secretary Paul Chan.

Local businesses will be allowed to borrow more money – up to HK$5 million – in loans fully guaranteed by the government. Rates and government rents for commercial properties will be reduced further, while a host of government charges will be exempted for a longer period.

Chan said this unprecedented spending would see Hong Kong’s budget deficit soar to about HK$300 billion this financial year, and whittle Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves down to about HK$800 billion.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said the government would subsidize stall owners in wet markets to install contactless payment systems. Cheung said the government was also setting aside HK$10 billion to buy Covid-19 vaccines.

Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said the Hong Kong government had been sourcing vaccines through COVAX, which is co-led by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

She added that elderly people, medical staff and those with chronic diseases would be given the vaccines first.

The government also announced it was relaxing more epidemic rules. Bars, party rooms, karaoke establishments and swimming pools, as well as Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland, will be allowed to reopen on Friday. Restaurants can open until midnight, instead of 10pm.

However, a ban on public gatherings of more than four people will stay. Chan warned of the possibility of a fourth wave of the outbreak in the winter months.

The Centre for Health Protection said Tuesday that only four imported cases were recorded on Monday. It has been the first day with no local infection since July 5. The number of confirmed cases in the city totaled 4,975 with 101 deaths.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she hoped the “third-wave” of the epidemic was under control and people could resume their normal activities, including the resumption of school classes from next week. She said the Hong Kong government would seek to reopen its borders as early as possible to support the aviation, hotel and tourism sectors.

Patrick Nip, the Secretary for the Civil Service, said Tuesday that the government’s two-week Universal Community Testing Programme, which ended on Monday, cost a total of HK$530 million, 70% of which would go towards the wages of medical and other support staff.

Nip said a total of 1.78 million people were tested with 32 patients identified. Ten more patients were identified indirectly due to the scheme.

Nip said it was worth doing mass virus tests while the cost per capita was only about HK$300. He said the scheme managed to achieve the objective of finding asymptomatic virus carriers and cutting off possible transmission chains in the community.

Some medical experts said the government testing program indicated there were somewhere from 40 to 60 silent carriers of the disease in total in Hong Kong.

Lam rejected suggestions that the number of infections did not justify the cost of the scheme.

“This universal community testing program has made multiple contributions to our anti-epidemic efforts, and it is not easy, or actually it’s not quite right, to reflect or measure these benefits by the unit cost of a confirmed case,” Lam said in a media briefing on Tuesday.

“The effectiveness and the success of public health relies on keeping the people safe, keeping the people away from disease infections and so on.”

Lam said the scheme was a huge success as it helped the government and the community gain a better understanding of the Covid-19 situation in the city which will help authorities decide how to ease some social distancing measures.

She said the scheme also succeeded in injecting “a certain degree of positive spirit which is so lacking in Hong Kong society for a while,” raising people’s awareness that the fight against the epidemic is ongoing and would not stop until a vaccine is available, and also in dispelling fears that the test was not safe.

Meanwhile, Lam said the Hong Kong government had finished the technical preparation for launching a health code system, which would allow people to travel overseas without being quarantined. She said the government was seeking to establish some mutual-recognition systems with other places.

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