Hong Kong has announced plans to roll out compulsory COVID-19 testing from next month, with each of the densely-populated territory’s 7.4 million residents required to submit to three rounds of tests.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the testing regime at a briefing on Tuesday as she announced a stringent set of new restrictions to tackle a record surge in coronavirus cases that have left hospitals overwhelmed and patients left to wait outside on the street.
Officials from the mainland would be coming to help, she said.
“This quickly worsening epidemic has far exceeded the Hong Kong government’s ability to tackle it, so there is great need for the central government’s support in fighting the virus,” she told reporters.
Hong Kong is home to some of the world’s most densely populated urban districts, with many families living in tiny apartments in high-rise tower blocks.
“The coming one to three months are crucial in fighting the pandemic,” Lam said.
The territory has relied on punishing border controls, quarantines and effective test and trace systems to control the pandemic since it first emerged two years ago, following the Zero COVID playbook developed in China.
But Lam’s government appears to have been caught off-guard by the Omicron variant, which slipped through Hong Kong’s defences earlier this year.
Amid unprecedented pressure on public hospitals wards, it faces a backlog of tests and a severe shortage of isolation despite a requirement that people isolate in government-run centres if they are diagnosed with the virus.
Under the new rules, all residents will have to go through three rounds of compulsory testing in March, although Lam did not give a start date.
The tests will be spread out over several days with residents also having to take multiple rapid antigen tests every day at home in between.
“Those who do not take the universal test will be held liable,” Lam warned, adding that there was no guarantee the steps would fully stamp out the current outbreak.
Schools and multiple businesses, such as gyms, bars and beauty salons, will remain closed into late April, with education facilities turned into local testing centres.
Gatherings of more than two people are banned.
Flights from nine countries, including Britain and the United States, will remain banned.
Lam reiterated the city’s “dynamic zero COVID” which mimics China in aiming to eradicate any outbreaks at all costs. She repeatedly thanked mainland authorities for their “staunch support.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping last week told her government to take “all necessary measures” to control the virus.
She said authorities were not considering a city-wide lockdown.
Hong Kong reported 6,211 new cases, 32 deaths and a further 9,369 cases that came up positive in preliminary tests. They said a backlog in testing meant they were unable to get a full picture of the situation.
A new model from the University of Hong Kong estimates that the current outbreak will peak in March, reporting some 180,000 new cases a day and nearly 100 deaths.
Hong Kong has struggled to get people vaccinated, especially the elderly.
On Tuesday, health officials revealed that of 102 recent deaths in the current wave, only seven had had two doses of a vaccine, while 63 were from care homes for the elderly.