Volunteers take part in Hong Kong's city-wide virus tests. Photo: RTHK

New powers for Hong Kong authorities to seal off a Covid-infected area are mired in controversy due to lack of detail about such arrangements.

Thousands of residents in at least two real estates in the New Territories fear that their estates will be sealed off suddenly by health officials and police because dozens of patients have been identified there.

As of Tuesday, 22 patients had been identified in block 8 at the Kwai Shing West Estate in Kwai Chung, according to the Center for Health Protection.

Leung Ching-shan, a Kwai Tsing district councilor, said many residents in the estate had raised concerns that they would not be able to go to work and buy necessities if the estate was sealed off.

Leung said the health department did not provide enough sample bottles to residents after the first patient was identified. She said the Housing Department did not arrange enough cleaning staff for the estate. She said the new seal-off rule would be a disaster for residents due to a lack of relief and supportive measures.

Kwai Shing West Estate could be sealed off if more patients are identified there. Photo: Google Maps

Residents in block C at the Kam Fung Court in Ma On Shan stored a lot more food at home after five patients were identified in the building, HK01.com reported. A woman surnamed Chan criticized the government for not announcing the addresses and details of the patients. She said she was only told that some members of the “dance club cluster” had infected others in the estate.

Another woman surnamed To said she was worried that the Kam Fung Court would be sealed off for a week suddenly.

On Tuesday evening, the government gazetted the latest amendments to the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation to provide the legal framework for the Secretary for Food and Health to make a declaration restricting movement of people subject to compulsory testing, or seal off premises with epidemic outbreaks until everyone on the premises has undergone testing and the results are ascertained.

Over the past month, the government had issued compulsory testing notices and specifications, covering people who had been to 34 specified premises during specified periods. They also cover symptomatic patients who seek medical attention, staff members of care homes for the elderly, care homes for people with disabilities, nursing homes and taxi drivers. 

Medical experts have welcomed the seal-off powers but are unsure whether the enforcement will be smooth and effective.

“These things must be done rapidly and at the same time, so that there won’t be chaos,” said Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases.

Leung said the authorities had to set up an emergency response mechanism to quickly mobilize different departments and contact decision-makers to implement quarantine and mandatory testing arrangements. He said the government had to seal off an area to prevent anyone from fleeing, tell those affected what to do, and conduct tests within a few hours.

Ho Pak-leung, the head of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Infection, called on the government to make use of its new powers to ban those living in block 8 at the Kwai Shing West Estate from leaving their homes until their test results are back.

“Right now, the response is definitely late, it was too slow, still there’s a need to make it up,” said Ho, adding that police should be deployed to trace those who have fled the building. “It’s not a responsible act to stay still and slowly study. These are decisions for senior government officials to make.”

The seal-off or lockdown measure was said to have contributed to the anti-epidemic battle in the mainland. When the third-wave epidemic broke out in July, some medical experts raised the idea but it was banned by the Hong Kong government.

A government spokesman said in a statement on July 21 it was an unfounded rumor that the government would impose a lockdown within days due to the virus outbreak.

“In view of the severity of the epidemic situation, we should fight the disease together. Members of the public should not be misled by fake news, nor should they spread any rumour that can lead to unnecessary fear,” a government spokesman said at the time.

On July 31, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced postponement for a year of the 2020 Legislative Council elections, originally due on September 6, to protect public safety and health.

Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection, said Wednesday that it could be too late to seal off the Kwai Shing West Estate because some patients might have fled. She added that it was not necessary to seal off all infected areas though officials now had the powers.

The Center for Health Protection reported 104 cases, including five imported and 99 local infections, on Tuesday. Of the local patients, 12 were linked to the “dance club cluster,” which has increased to 690 patients as of Tuesday. Untraceable cases amounted to 35.

Fresh cases included a construction worker at the Tseung Kwan O – Lam Tin Tunnel, with five bar benders there also testing preliminary positive. More than 1,400 workers at the construction site have been ordered to get a test.

Three police officers at the airport were identified to be infected. Some other patients were found in an elderly care home in Tuen Mun and another in Diamond Hill. More than 60 people tested positive preliminarily on Wednesday.

Read: HK to seal off infected areas to halt viral wave