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

Hong Kong residents have started to stockpile food and necessities on concerns the government may lock down the city later this month to stem a fast and lethal rise in Covid-19 infections.

The Hong Kong government is considering making the city’s 7.5 million population take three rounds of compulsory Covid-19 tests between March 26 and April 3, Hong Kong media reported citing unnamed sources.

During the first four days of the proposed period, all Hongkongers would reportedly be required to stay at home unless they are going out to buy food and medicine or working for specified sectors such as healthcare and stock trading.

Those found to be infected will be instructed if they should enter quarantine centers or undergo home isolation, according to the media report that was picked up by global wire services including Reuters and Bloomberg.

Hong Kong’s government said late on Tuesday any decision to impose a Covid-19 lockdown would take into account the global financial hub’s status and ensure basic needs such as food and urged anxious residents who raided supermarkets this week not to panic.

The government said it was still “refining” details for a compulsory mass Covid testing scheme and would announce details once they had been confirmed.

Hong Kong has maintained a “dynamic zero” Covid policy, like in mainland China, which seeks to firmly curb all outbreaks. Business leaders, medical experts and diplomats have questioned the sustainability of a zero Covid policy as cases surge.

Due to tough anti-epidemic rules and uncertainties in the business environment, Hong Kong reported a net outflow of 71,354 people in February, a sharp rise on the 15,252 who left in January, according to the Immigration Department.

More than 10% of European Union citizens living in Hong Kong have left the city since last year, according to the European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macao. On Wednesday, the United States raised its travel alert for Hong Kong to the highest level, urging people not to visit the city during its current outbreak.

The fifth-epidemic wave first broke out in Hong Kong in late December amid the global rise of the Omicron variant. In early February, the daily number of local cases in Hong Kong ranged between several hundred to 1,000, but those figures did not show the true picture as thousands of samples of preliminarily positive cases were left untouched at government laboratories due to limited testing capacities.

In late February, the government announced it would scrap double-checking the preliminarily positive cases and allow people to directly report their rapid test results to the government for official counting. Since then, the number of positive cases in Hong Kong has jumped significantly.

On Thursday, a total of 56,827 cases were reported in the city, compared with 55,353 on Wednesday and 32,597 on Tuesday, according to the Center for Health Protection. Those numbers included only several imported cases per day.

During the past week, a total of 232,342 people have tested positive in Hong Kong, meaning that 30,979 per one million people were infected in the city, compared with 23,026 in South Korea, 21,993 in Singapore, 11,078 in Germany, 6,190 in the United Kingdom and 1,235 in the United States.

Areas of the Jordan district in Hong Kong were placed under lockdown on January 23 for mass testing. Photo: AFP / HW Chan / EYEPRESS

In the week ended Tuesday, 822 people who tested positive for the coronavirus died in Hong Kong, meaning that 109.6 per one million people died in the city, compared with 10.89 in South Korea, 11.05 in Singapore, 12.52 in Germany, 8.11 in the UK and 34.73 in the US. Around 500 deaths have been recorded in late February, with most being unvaccinated.

Albert Au, the principal medical and health officer from the Centre for Health Protection, said 92% of the recent 442 deaths in Hong Kong were related to people aged over 60. Au said 4.6% of the Covid patients aged over 80 died, compared with 0.17% of those aged between 60 and 69 and 0.87% to those aged between 70 and 79.

According to official data, only 30.48% of Hong Kong people aged over 80 have been vaccinated with two doses. Excluding those who received the Sinovac vaccine that may not help people create enough antibodies to fight against Omicron, only 9.23% of people aged over 80 have been inoculated.

On February 22, the Hong Kong government said it planned to launch a citywide testing scheme in March, but there was no need to lock down the city. On Monday, however, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the option of a citywide lockdown to coincide with a universal Covid testing program in March had not been ruled out.

In the hours that followed, many supermarket shelves were stripped bare, with fresh produce and frozen food among the goods snapped up by panicked buyers. Pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets were widely circulated on social media.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said people should stay calm as the supply of food and necessities in Hong Kong would remain sufficient to prevent shortages.

Simon Lau Sai-leung, a Hong Kong political commentator, said on his YouTube channel the Hong Kong government had lost credibility as it had said in early February there was no need to have a citywide testing scheme.

He said the government had claimed it would not postpone the election for chief executive, replace PCR tests with rapid ones and lock down, but then it changed its stance due to orders from Beijing.

Read: HK tightens Covid rules while world eases theirs

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3