Omicron: Carrie Lam rules out mainland-style lockdown as Hong Kong battles Covid fifth wave

  • Case numbers in the thousands are straining the medical system as some hospitals put patients outside
  • The city’s leader has dismissed the idea of living with the coronavirus, saying zero-Covid remained the goal
Agence France-Presse |

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People lie in hospital beds outside Caritas Medical Centre in Hong Kong on February 15, 2022, as the city faces its worst wave of coronavirus to date. Photo: AFP

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Tuesday said she would not impose a mainland China-style hard lockdown as the city faces its worst coronavirus wave to date, even as she vowed there would be no switch to living with Covid-19.

The comments came as hospitals began to buckle under the strain of rising infections, with at least two medical facilities placing patients in beds outside their entrances.

No place in the world has managed to return to zero Covid cases after such an outbreak except mainland China, which has imposed citywide lockdowns and mass stay-at-home orders when even a handful of cases are detected.

Hong Kong’s health facilities are overwhelmed by Omicron

Lam ruled out that approach.

“We have no plans whatsoever to impose a complete, wholesale lockdown,” she told reporters.

But she also rejected calls from some public health experts and business figures to switch to a mitigation strategy, saying zero-Covid remained her administration’s goal.

Hong Kong imposes its toughest social-distancing rules yet

“We have to continue to fight this anti-epidemic battle. Surrendering to the virus is not an option,” Lam said.

Authorities will continue to use smaller-scale district lockdowns, testing all residents in housing blocks where cases are detected, she added.

For more than two years, Hong Kong has followed the mainland’s strategy, pursuing zero cases with largely closed borders, lengthy quarantines, contact tracing and stringent social distancing laws.

Hongkongers line up to get tested for the coronavirus at a temporary testing centre. Photo: AP

But the new wave, fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, has battered the city’s capacity for testing, quarantine and treatment, and is testing the policy like never before.

More than 2,000 new daily infections were reported on Monday, and the figure hovered over 1,000 for much of the last week.

Local researchers have warned that new daily cases could exceed 28,000 a day by March.

Is it time for Hong Kong to learn to live with Covid?

Before this outbreak, Hong Kong treated all coronavirus patients in dedicated isolation wards, but beds at hospitals and a temporary mass treatment facility near the airport have quickly filled up.

AFP reporters on Tuesday saw patients lying on stretchers outside two hospitals.

Close contacts of virus cases were earlier sent to a government quarantine camp, but many are now being told to isolate at home.

Lam said 3,000 flats in newly constructed public housing blocks will be converted for quarantine use and that officials are seeking 10,000 hotel rooms as well.

Last week saw long queues of people waiting to get tested, and many who tested positive reported being turned away from hospitals.

Hong Kong has sourced 100 million rapid test kits and will distribute one million of them per day to high-risk individuals once they arrive, Lam said on Tuesday.

Why repeated boosters are not a viable strategy

Scenes from the city in recent days resembled the early phase of the pandemic, as shoppers cleared out supermarket shelves to stock up on food and essentials.

Hong Kong imports most of its fresh food and produce from mainland China, and vegetable prices spiked last week due to a virus-related supply disruption.

Lam said her administration was recruiting more cross-border drivers and will look into waterborne freight as an option.

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