Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference on government's strategy for vaccinations, in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong has postponed a citywide coronavirus testing scheme scheduled for late March and will focus instead on containing serious cases after the city’s Covid-19 death rate topped the world for a second straight week.

This week the government announced plans to turn several public hospitals into facilities that receive only serious Covid patients and others in critical condition. It also abnormally sent an urgent alert to citizens’ mobile phones about the decision, fueling already high anxieties in the city seen in panic buying of food and goods.

The latest change of strategy has sent the city back to square one as medical experts acknowledge that it’s impossible for Hong Kong to accomplish Beijing’s goal to achieve zero local infections with the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

University of Hong Kong research forecasts that the number of infections in the city will reach 4.3 million, or 57% of the population of 7.5 million people, by the end of April.

Since the fifth epidemic wave broke out in Hong Kong in December, more than half a million people have been infected. In the month ended Tuesday, 498,809 cases had been reported, compared with 3,064 a month earlier. During this wave, 2,869 people who tested positive had died. Before the current wave, Hong Kong had recorded only 213 deaths.

In the week ended Tuesday, 1,697 Covid patients died in Hong Kong, compared with 1,304 a week earlier. That means the number of deaths per million in seven days grew to 226 from 174 the previous week.

According to Statista.com, the death rate was 22.53 in the United States, 20.23 in South Korea, 17.54 in Germany and 9.76 in the United Kingdom for the same period. In Eastern Europe, the figures ranged between 30 and 50.

The majority of the deaths in Hong Kong were over the age of 60, according to health officials, while over 90% of them were unvaccinated. This vaccine hesitancy has been fueled by the spread of misinformation and waning trust in the government, according to news reports. 

A woman undergoes a Covid-19 test at a mobile specimen collection station in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency

When there were only about 100 Covid cases per day a month ago, the Hong Kong government on February 8 decided to strengthen its social distancing rules in order to force people to get vaccinated.

Tian Feilong, an associate professsor at Beijing’s Beihang University Law School and director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, on February 9 criticized Hong Kong officials and elites for pretending to agree with Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy and believing instead in the West’s “living with the virus” strategy.

On February 15, Senior Vice Premier and a Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng met Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam in Shenzhen and told her that President Xi Jinping had ordered to make epidemic control a top priority for Hong Kong.

Since then, Hong Kong had planned to roll out a citywide testing scheme and accompanying lockdown in late March and expanded the capacity of its quarantine facilities with the mainland’s support. The city also used the emergency law to import thousands of medical staff from the mainland to help contain the outbreak.

In the two months ended last Friday, a net outflow of 92,000 people was recorded in Hong Kong as many people, including expats, were afraid of being sent to quarantine centers.

Many of those who stayed in Hong Kong accumulated food and necessities while those who tested positive flooded into the emergency rooms of public hospitals as the government had not officially announced a home quarantine policy.

On March 3, Xia Baoling, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, said in a video conference that Hong Kong had to take strong measures to contain the virus as outbreaks could cause political instability.

Foreign Policy magazine reported that some of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable residents have resorted to sleeping outside to avoid infecting loved ones in their compact apartments, unable to find room in the government’s packed quarantine facilities.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers have also joined to criticize the Lam administration and complained about even some small issues such as not sending top officials to meet with Liang Wannian, a top expert of China’s National Health Commission, during his visit to Hong Kong.

However, the central and Hong Kong governments changed their tone this week. On Wednesday, Lam said it’s meaningless to argue whether Hong Kong should adopt “living with the virus” or “zero infections” strategy as the government’s top priority was to reduce fatalities.

Hong Kong has tried to maintain a Zero Covid policy in line with Beijing’s wishes. Photo: Simon Jankowski / NurPhoto via AFP

She said the government had to change its measures to react to the epidemic. Lam added that the proposed citywide testing scheme was not an urgent task and would still be launched at some point.

Media reports said Han met Hong Kong’s members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing on Sunday and Monday, respectively, saying that it should not be only Lam but the whole government that fights the Covid battle.

Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the largest pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong, on Tuesday evening apologized to Lam for wrongly complaining about the government’s arrangements related to Liang’s reception.

On Wednesday, Xia also softened his tone during a meeting with Hong Kong’s CPPCC and NPC members and said he had never blamed the Hong Kong government for the city’s fifth epidemic wave.

Read: HK in a panic as Covid lockdown looms

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3