Health workers wear personal protective equipment at a Covid-19 testing center in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

The Hong Kong government is preparing to launch a citywide Covid testing scheme in March after being ordered by Chinese President Xi Jinping to make epidemic control its top priority.

Over the past two years, the government has avoided large-scale testing of its population of 7.5 million as medical experts said it would not be effective without lockdowns. They said people would continue to spread the virus after most of the infected were found.

Some medical experts said Thursday that a seven-day lockdown might be necessary if people would be tested three times at home.

Due to virus outbreaks and uncertainties in the business environment, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC) on Thursday revised downward its 2022 growth forecast for the local economy to 1.2% – 1.6 percentage points lower than its estimate in December, when the city had not yet been hit by the Omicron variant.

Media reports also said it was possible that the Hong Kong Chief Executive election, which is set to be held on March 27, would be postponed. If no candidates are nominated between February 20 and March 5, the election will be deferred by 42 days.

Hong Kong’s fifth-epidemic wave started in late December 2021 due to the global rise of the highly-contagious Omicron variant. On Thursday, a total of 6,116 people tested positive, with only nine imported cases. Another 6,300 tested positive preliminarily.

During the past week, a total of 18,277 people have tested positive in Hong Kong. Most carried the Omicron strain.

A swab sample is collected at a makeshift Covid testing site at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong on September 1, 2020. Photo: AFP / Anthony Kwan

Hospitals filling up

The Hospital Authority said on Thursday that seven of its public hospitals had reached or exceeded their full capacity, with all of the in-patient beds taken up. On Wednesday, a total of 4,142 people visited the accident and emergency departments of various public hospitals, but only 17% were admitted.

The overall occupancy rate of the 17 public hospitals was 95%. The Prince of Wales Hospital, Tin Shui Wai Hospital and Tseung Kwan O Hospital were the most overwhelmed, with their occupancy rates reaching 108%, 107% and 106%, respectively.

Fifteen people infected with Covid-19 passed away in the past 24 hours, the Hospital Authority’s general manager Sara Ho told a media briefing on Thursday afternoon. Nine died between February 11 and 15, but there were delays in reporting, she added.

On Wednesday, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, two pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong, reported that Xi had asked Vice-Premier Han Zheng to convey his concern about Hong Kong’s fifth epidemic wave to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, as well as his warm wishes to the people of the special administrative region.

Xi said the SAR government had to shoulder the main responsibility of reining in the outbreaks, mobilize all the manpower and resources it had and introduce every necessary measure to ensure the safety and health of Hong Kong people, and the stability of society.

He said the central government and other local authorities would give their full support and assistance to the SAR government.

“From President Xi’s point of view, various measures taken by the central government have righted the wrongs. The prosperity and stability Hong Kong enjoys now are hard-earned, and shouldn’t be ruined by the uncontrollable Covid situation,” said Lau Siu-kai, Vice-President of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

“If the Covid situation gets out of hand and people’s dissatisfaction accumulates, leading to all sorts of anti-government behavior … that would not be what the central government wants to see.”

Vaccine pass to kick off

Xi’s order came after Lam and the Executive Council announced on February 8 a further tightening of social distancing rules and expanded the coverage of the “vaccine pass” scheme, which will kick off on February 24.

Tian Feilong, a director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, on February 9 criticized Hong Kong officials for pretending to agree with Beijing’s zero Covid policy, but adopting the West’s “living with the virus” strategy.

He said virus outbreaks in Hong Kong would slow the economic and political integration between the city and Guangdong province.

Several Hong Kong newspapers reported on Thursday that the Hong Kong government was planning to launch a citywide testing scheme next month, but had no plans to have large-scale lockdowns.

“If people continue to move around in the city while universal testing is underway, it may not be able to effectively curb the outbreaks,” Joseph Tsang, an infectious disease expert, told RTHK in an interview on Thursday.

“Without locking down the city, it will really lose its effectiveness and meaning. If the government is really hoping to order everyone to undergo three tests, I think it should carefully consider whether to include lockdowns, because going halfway is meaningless.”

Tsang also said the government had to have some contingency plans if the number of infected people exceeded the capacity of isolation facilities.

After having a virtual meeting with a group of hotel owners, Lam said Wednesday at least 10,000 hotel rooms would soon be converted into isolation facilities for Covid patients who have zero or mild symptoms.

A partial lockdown in Hong Kong’s North Point in January 2021. Photo: WikiCommons

A slowing economy

While it has remained unclear whether Hong Kong will be locked down, the city’s business sector has expressed its concern about the slowing economy.

“The impact of and uncertainties surrounding the latest variant are a sobering reminder of the long journey ahead of us in battling Covid-19,” the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce’s Peter Wong wrote in a proposal to Financial Secretary Paul Chan, who will deliver his budget speech on February 23.

Apart from slashing its 2022 growth forecast for Hong Kong, the chamber also raised its unemployment rate forecast from 3.7% to 4.8%.

In a recent survey, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association said about 70% of its members expected that the revenue of retailers in shopping malls would drop by more than 50% as only vaccinated people would be allowed to enter after the implementation of the “vaccine pass” scheme on February 24.

Meanwhile, virus outbreaks in Hong Kong have added to the burden of its neighboring cities’ anti-epidemic work. On Wednesday, Guangdong province said it had identified 24 imported cases, 19 of which came from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Fosan and Dongguan.

On Tuesday, two people illegally entered Zhuhai from Hong Kong and tested positive after arriving in Hunan province. On Wednesday, mainland authorities said another 13 people traveled together with the duo, but only 10 of them were traced.

Local governments in Guangdong offered rewards for the remaining people of 500,000 yuan (US$78,890) each.

Read: Hong Kong Covid policy shift sparks politics debate

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3