HONG KONG – Any decision to impose a COVID-19 lockdown in Hong Kong will take into account the global financial hub’s status and ensure basic needs, the government said on Wednesday, March 2, urging anxious residents who thronged supermarkets this week to stay calm.
Authorities reported a new daily record of 55,353 new infections, with 117 deaths in the Chinese-ruled city. Infections have surged more than 500 times from about 100 cases a day at the beginning of February.
The government said it was still planning and “refining” a compulsory mass COVID-19 testing scheme, details of which will be revealed once confirmed.
The government would “safeguard the status of Hong Kong as a financial center when implementing the Compulsory Universal Testing scheme (CUT)”, it said.
“The experience of implementing a CUT initiative in other parts of the world shows that the basic needs of citizens such as food, necessities and the seeking of medical attention outside home should be addressed.”
Citizens should not “panic nor scramble or stockpile” supplies, it added.
The statement on Tuesday, March 1, came amid widespread confusion and chaos, as the government’s mixed messaging and almost daily tweaking of rules have frustrated many.
Leader Carrie Lam had previously said that a citywide lockdown and compulsory testing were not being considered.
However, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said on Monday, February 28, a lockdown had not been ruled out, fueling rumors and sparking a rush for groceries, pharmacy products and banking services.
Hong Kong has stuck firmly to a “dynamic zero” coronavirus policy, similar to that of mainland China, seeking to stamp out all outbreaks with sweeping restrictions and quarantine.
But the highly infectious Omicron variant of coronavirus has breached defenses time and again and some business leaders and medical experts have questioned the sustainability of a zero COVID policy as cases surge.
Hospitals and mortuaries are swamped as deaths climb.
Authorities have been racing to build tens of thousands of isolation units to quarantine those with mild or no symptoms.
That further worries some residents who see the rest of the world choosing a “live with the virus” approach, relying on high levels of vaccination and mitigation measures such as masks to try to pull through Omicron surges.
Since the pandemic began in 2020, the tally of infections in the former British colony stands at more than 290,000, with a death toll of about 1,100.
About 700 of those deaths have been in the past week, with the majority unvaccinated people.
Health experts from the University of Hong Kong estimated about 1.7 million people were already infected by Monday, with the coming week expected to bring a peak of about 183,000 daily infections.
Hong Kong’s international reputation had been “very damaged” with the confusing messages, creating alarm, said prominent businessman and government adviser Allan Zeman.
“Right now there is a lot of uncertainty,” he said in remarks unusually critical for a pro-Beijing businessman.
“The government needs to speak with one voice.”
Leader Lam told reporters she “totally understood” Zeman’s concern, adding that the government would do its best to deliver accurate information and allay worries.
Many feared being forced to isolate and separated from family members who test positive. That prompted an exodus of people, particularly expatriates, in February.
In an advisory on Wednesday, US consular officials urged people not to travel to Hong Kong because of COVID-19 and related restrictions, such as “the risk of parents and children being separated.”
The bank HSBC told staff in an internal email seen by Reuters that they needed a valid vaccine pass by March 28 to enter its premises, with a spokesperson confirming the memo. – Rappler.com