People line up in Yau Tsim Mong district for Covid tests. Photo: RTHK

The Hong Kong government announced Tuesday it would expand the coverage of its mandatory virus tests in Sham Shui Po, Yau Ma Tei and Jordan amid a rise in infections in the three areas.

Over the past few days, more than 13,000 residents living in Yau Ma Tei and Jordan had undergone Covid-19 tests due to recent outbreaks in the areas, Chui Tak-yi, the undersecretary for food and health, told a media briefing on Tuesday. Thirty-one people who lived in the two areas tested positive on Monday, he said.

After 15 people were discovered to be infected in 20 tenement buildings that were issued with mandatory test notices in Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, the government said it would boost testing in a “core zone” bordered by Ning Po Street, Reclamation Street, Pak Hoi Street and Temple Street, Tsui said.

All residents living in the 70 buildings within the “core zone” would be placed under a mandatory testing order even if no infections have been found, Chui said.

Testing will also be stepped up in Sham Shui Po. Residents living in an area bordered by Yen Chow Street, Tai Po Road, Maple Street and Lai Chi Kok Road will be ordered to get tested for Covid-19 if just one case is found in their housing blocks.

Designated area in Sham Shui Po for virus testing Photo: Google Maps
‘Core zone’ in Yau Ma Tei and Jordan for virus testing Photo: Google Maps

“After knowing the number of cases and the background more, for example, the patients’ social behavior, their occupations and the building environment they’re living in, that is why we set up the specified area,” Chui said.

The Center for Health Protection said a total of 56 cases, including one imported case and 55 local infections, were recorded on Monday. Of the local cases, 23 were untraceable. More than 60 people tested positive preliminary on Tuesday.

Authorities should consider discussing with shopping malls if New Year sales could be avoided, and what could be done to control the number of shoppers or to divert them, said Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases.

There had been a coronavirus rebound for six days, with the number of new cases exceeding 100 on Monday, and the number of infections with no known sources in the past seven days being 50% higher than the week before, Leung said.

“We are mainly concerned that, in weekends, especially during Chinese New Year, more and more people would gather,” he said.

As a lot of people were still gathering in the countryside with some taking off their masks to take photos or to picnic. The government should consider canceling exemptions for mask-wearing during exercise and in country parks, and try to ensure people stay 1.5 meters apart when they eat or drink, he said.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government would extend the social distancing rules that were due to expire on Thursday, saying “there is no room to relax” them.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

This means measures such as a ban on gatherings of more than two people in public will remain in place and restaurants cannot provide dine-in services after 6pm. Government staff will be required to work from home until January 27, except for those who provide emergency and essential public services or are involved with anti-epidemic efforts.

Lam said officials had identified dozens of buildings with poor environments and no management in the Yau Ma Tei and Jordan districts.

She said the boost in testing in designated areas was aimed at finding infected people quickly and stopping the transmission of the virus. She added that the public should not panic when the number of cases surged after more tests were carried out.

Job markets

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s unemployment rate increased to 6.6%, the highest in 16 years, between October and December. The figure was up 0.3 percentage points from the 6.3% for the three months ending in November.

The number of jobless people rose by 1,500 to 245,800, according to the latest survey by the Census and Statistics Department. The city’s labor force stood at 3.89 million.

In December, the unemployment rate worsened across almost all major sectors, with the retail, accommodation and food services industries having recorded increases after the government’s Employment Support Scheme ended in November.

Local travel agency EGL Tours said Tuesday it would lay off 120 tour guides as the company struggled to stay afloat amid the pandemic, involving severance pay to the tune of HK$20 million. Some of the workers have more than 20 years of experience.

“As the fourth wave of local epidemic continues to weigh on local consumption sentiment and disrupt economic activities, the labor market will remain under notable pressure in the near term,” said Secretary for Labor and Welfare Law Chi-kwong.

On January 8, the government said it had decided to call off Lunar New Year fairs planned across the city next month. However, it said on Tuesday that the fairs at 15 locations would continue as previously scheduled but they would be required to close earlier and the number of stalls would be halved.

Read: Thousands in old HK buildings tested after outbreaks