Hong Kong’s government has asked the territory’s hotels to set aside as many 10,000 rooms to be used for coronavirus quarantine, as an Omicron-fuelled wave of the virus tests its pandemic response to the limit.
The Chinese territory has seen a surge in cases – and rising deaths – in recent days with Chinese President Xi Jinping directing the local government to take “all necessary measures” to control the outbreak.
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Ten people were reported to have died on Wednesday, including a three-year-old girl. Local media reported that confirmed daily cases might reach a record 5,000 on Thursday.
Most people who test positive for COVID-19 are isolated in central quarantine facilities, but the scale of the outbreak means some of the centres are running out of beds even after the relaxation of rules to allow the asymptomatic to quarantine at home if they wanted.
The government says it has already secured about 4,400 hotel rooms, with about 1,700 of those to be ready before the end of the week.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam met members of the hotel industry on Wednesday to appeal for more.
Saying she was optimistic that “at least 10,000 hotel rooms could be made available for the scheme”, Lam sought to reassure hoteliers telling them that authorities would provide staff with “essential infection control training” and that the government could also “take over the day-to-day activities like checking-in and out, allocation of rooms, cleansing and security” if they preferred.
“I look forward to your positive response within the next day or so,” she told them.
Since the pandemic began two years ago, Hong Kong has been pursuing a “Zero COVID” policy, locking down buildings and implementing mandatory testing and stringent quarantines for incoming travellers as well as those confirmed with the virus.
Earlier this week, Lam admitted failures in her government’s approach and some experts told Al Jazeera the growth of the outbreak was currently very difficult to control.
“I don’t see how we can stop transmission at the moment, with infections doubling approximately every three days,” said Ben Cowling, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Hong Kong.
“But this epidemic will run out of steam and peak within a month.”
China is already giving assistance in an attempt to strengthen testing, treatment and isolation measures in a place where only about a third of elderly people are fully vaccinated against the virus. About 83 percent of the territory’s 7.5 million residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the government.
Following Xi’s call, the English-language South China Morning Post said officials were moving ahead with plans to build three emergency hospitals and were considering mass testing of everyone in the territory of 7.5 million at least three times.
“The prolonged pandemic continues to undermine the business environment and put people’s patience to the test, both of which are not conducive to the well-being of the city,” the Post wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
“The buck still stops with the chief executive. The Lam team must show greater determination and accountability and double down on efforts in resolving bottlenecks.”