Restaurants in Hong Kong are allowed to use only half their capacity. Photo: Asia Times

Hong Kong has tightened social-distancing rules and introduced mandatory Covid-19 testing for high-risk groups as more evidence shows that a fourth-wave could have begun.

The government had been worried by the surge in cases in the past week, especially those with unknown sources, Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said on a radio program on Monday. The government tightened anti-epidemic rules because it wanted to avoid a fourth wave, she said.

Commenting on an incident in which Financial Secretary Paul Chan, Education Bureau chief Kevin Yeung and Police Commissioner Chris Tang did not wear masks when taking pictures in the government’s Honours and Awards Presentation Ceremony, Chan said people should not have taken off their masks during the event.

Chan called on the public not to take off masks at public places, especially in big crowds.

Citing the rise in local infections, Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist of the University of Hong Kong, said the fourth wave could have begun.

He said mainland China successfully controlled the virus because local authorities had the power to lock down communities and forbid people to go out. Yuen said Hong Kong could not do the same thing, so it was inevitable that the territory would continue to report local cases, even if mass virus tests were done.

The Center for Health Protection said Monday that eight imported cases were reported within the 24 hours on Sunday. However, a total of 22 cases were recorded between Friday and Saturday, including 14 imported cases and eight local infections. Among the local patients, two cases had no connection with the previous cases.

On Saturday, the government announced that doctors will be able to order patients to take a Covid-19 test if they show symptoms. Patients who refuse risk a fine of up to HK$25,000 (US$3,224) and six months in prison.

Chan was asked during a radio program on Monday if a doctor would bear any responsibility if he or she failed to instruct someone to take a test and their patient was later found to have the virus.

“Of course it depends on each case but for any kind of sickness, if a doctor is found to have a problem in their professional decision, the Medical Council has an existing mechanism [to deal with that],” she said.

Chan’s comment appeared to be “threatening” towards doctors, said Choi Kin, chairman of the Medical Association. The authorities should have consulted the profession about the plan and doctors have now been left with no choice but to comply.

Choi added that he was worried some people would be put off from visiting doctors for fear of being made to take a coronavirus test.

The government also said Saturday that starting from Monday, restaurants would be allowed to seat no more than four diners at a table instead of six. Capacity will be reduced from 75% of the usual level to 50% while businesses will have to close at midnight instead of 2am.

At bars, the number of customers permitted per table will also be cut from four to two, with people banned from drinking away from their tables.

Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said the government’s move to tighten the social-distancing rules would significantly hurt the businesses of bars and restaurants in December, which is usually a high season.

Ben Leung, convenor of the Licensed Bar & Club Association of Hong Kong, said bars would lose 80% of their revenue because they were not allowed to operate after midnight. Leung said many bars would be closed and their employees would become jobless.

It is unclear whether the government will further tighten anti-epidemic rules or shut down facilities in the short term.

On Monday, the Trade Development Council said it would have a meeting with all the supporting organizations to see whether the annual Book Fair, which was postponed from early July to December 16 to 22, would go ahead next month.

Benjamin Chau, the council’s deputy executive director, says more than 600 exhibitors have signed up but the recent rise in local infections and the tightening of social distancing measures have increased uncertainty over the event.

Hong Kong travel agencies are busily preparing for the start of the “travel bubble” between the territory and Singapore on the coming Sunday. The scheme, which allows people to travel between the cities, has had a strong market response.

However, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no plan to follow suit as overseas tours were riskier than domestic ones in terms of virus transmission. Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui said China would remain very cautious in resuming cross-border travel.

Read: Hong Kong hit by post-Covid respiratory infections