An infected domestic worker visited an employment agency at Beverly Garden in Tseung Kwan O on December 25. Photo: Google Maps

The Hong Kong government announced Tuesday it would expand its mandatory virus test scheme to cover a residential building that reported two unrelated cases within 14 days.

Although the number of local cases was declining, progress remained slow, said Chui Tak-yi, the Undersecretary for Food and Health. The coverage of mandatory virus tests should be expanded, he added.

At present, a mandatory virus test notice would only be issued to residents in a building that reported four unrelated cases within 14 days. On average, health officials issued the notice to about two to three buildings per day.

“If one of the two independent cases in a building has unknown sources, a mandatory virus test notice will be issued to the building,” said Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection.

Under the new requirements, dozens of residential buildings would immediately be included in the mandatory test scheme, she said.

The Center for Health Protection said a total of 53 confirmed cases – three imported cases and 50 local infections – were recorded in Hong Kong on Monday. Of the local patients, 14 had no known sources.

The mutated coronavirus with a higher infection rate was identified in samples from eight people who had returned to Hong Kong from the United Kingdom.

An Indonesian domestic worker was also categorized as an imported case. She arrived in Hong Kong on December 11 and stayed in hotels in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok for 14 days. On December 25, she visited an employment agency at Beverly Garden in Tseung Kwan O, but was required to be quarantined for seven more days under the new rules.

She then stayed in the Winland 800 Hotel in Tsing Yi, but tested positive on Sunday, the 17th day after arriving in Hong Kong.

Health officials said the helper had met some other workers at the employment agency.

Two other infected people came to Hong Kong from South Africa and one had previously stayed in the UK. Both will be tested for the new variant identified in Britain.

From Wednesday to January 15, the Philippines will ban travelers from 19 countries and territories until mid-January as a measure to keep out the new variant of the coronavirus. Thousands of Filipino workers in Hong Kong who planned to go home could be affected.

United Christian Hospital

More than 40 people tested positive preliminarily in Hong Kong on Tuesday. Among them, a nurse from Ward 2D at the United Christian Hospital was found to be infected. She was previously not categorized as a close contact of the 19-people cluster in the hospital as she wore full protective gear. However, she had meals with medical staff from five hospitals. These staff will be quarantined.

Chui said it was too early to say whether any anti-epidemic rules could be eased. He said as people kept going out to shop and dine during the Christmas holidays, new cases would emerge one or two weeks later.

“I’m worried that there could be a V-shaped rebound in the next couple of weeks,” said Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Infection.

Ho warned of a possible spike in Covid-19 cases as a result of Christmas gatherings in private homes, where people would not have kept their masks on.

He also said authorities were taking too long to test people who had likely already been exposed to the virus – such as residents of buildings where multiple infections had been confirmed. He said ideally, all people deemed to be at high risk of having the virus should be tested within 24 hours.

He said if there were not enough medical personnel to ensure this happens, the government should consider enlisting the help of disciplined services officials to track down and test all of them as quickly as possible.

Political pressure

Meanwhile, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday posted a nine-page article titled “Fighting the virus for 11 months Determined to win the hard-fought battle” on Facebook, explaining about the government’s efforts to contain the virus and urging the public to stay vigilant and strictly comply with the anti-epidemic rules.

Lam blamed those who continued their frequent social contacts for making this wave of the pandemic more difficult to contain. She said the singing and dancing cluster involving more than 730 confirmed cases had caused outbreaks in multiple places within a short period of time with cases penetrating deep into various communities.

“Infection clusters appear in more than 20 residential buildings and housing estates, with possible environmental transmission in some cases, making the prevention and control of the epidemic even more challenging,” she said.

“Moreover, after fighting the epidemic for months, public awareness in complying with social distancing measures has obviously declined. Despite the severe epidemic situation, there is still a large number of people on the streets.”

Lam also gave an online speech at a financial forum organized by state broadcaster CCTV on Tuesday, saying she hoped to restore social order and rebuild people’s confidence in her government after the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said the priority of her administration was to rein in the spread of the coronavirus. Once the situation is brought under control, she said she will boost the economy and restore social order with the support of Beijing, and rebuild the trust of both the local and international community in her government.

However, she did not elaborate on how she would go about doing so.

Originally Lam should have visited Beijing to report to President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in mid-December, but the trip was delayed. She has been slammed by the pro-establishment camp for failing to control the epidemic.

Mainland health officials also complained that the lingering pandemic in Hong Kong had created a burden in the fight against the illness in Shenzhen.

Chung Kim-wah, an assistant professor of Social Policy, Social Welfare and Community Development at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said most members of the pro-establishment camp lost the District Council elections in November 2019 after they supported Lam during the extradition saga.

Chung said they were not allowed to blame Lam until Beijing gave them a green light this month. He said those who wanted to run in the Chief Executive election in March 2022 could have started their campaigns by attacking Lam.

Read: HK residents tested after virus found in sewage