Coronavirus: Carrie Lam confirms universal testing still on the cards; says debate over ‘live with the virus’ approach irrelevant

  • Hong Kong’s leader made her first public appearance in two weeks, announcing that the government wouldn’t adopt a ‘lying flat’ attitude in the fight against coronavirus
  • The city will hold off on universal testing and focus on the soaring rate of infections and providing care for those who test positive for Covid

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People line up to get tested for Covid-19 at a mobile specimen collection station in Mong Kok during Hong Kong’s fifth wave of infections. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made her first public appearance in two weeks on Wednesday, giving updates on various aspects of the city’s anti-pandemic fight, including a universal testing drive aimed at curbing the raging fifth wave of coronavirus infections. The mass testing was first announced at Lam’s last public appearance on February 22.

Wednesday’s appearance came after calls by state leader Han Zheng for stronger and more decisive leadership in the health crisis, and signalled an expansion of Lam’s role in communicating pandemic-related messages to the public.

She confirmed that she would be taking a more active role in the city’s pandemic messaging, saying she and various ministers would personally lead coronavirus press briefings “to clear up rumours or misunderstandings”.

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Lam said that debates over whether the city had decided “live with the virus” instead of pursuing its long-held “dynamic zero-infection” goal were now irrelevant, but insisted the government would never stop aggressively fighting the pandemic, even as cases continued to surge, adding that “every life matters”.

“At this stage, it is meaningless to argue whether we are adopting a ‘living with virus’ or ‘zero-Covid’ approach, but I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that the Hong Kong government will never adopt the so-called ‘lying flat’ attitude suggested by others in society to deal with the pandemic,” she said.

She added that the authorities were following the orders of President Xi Jinping to ensure the health of Hongkongers and uphold the country’s “high standards to fight this arduous anti-epidemic war”.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor meets the media at Central Government Offices. Photo: SCMP

Universal testing

Asked when the city’s compulsory universal testing drive would start, Lam said it was still in the cards, but the exact timing would depend on the city’s situation.

“We would need to consider Hong Kong’s epidemic situation, and whether we can achieve the best effect when starting this exercise,” Lam said.

She said manpower, venues and resources were still being arranged, and conceded that the exercise might no longer be the best way to determine the city’s latest infection status, given that there was already a widespread use of rapid antigen tests.

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“We won’t do it for the sake of doing it, or do it in order to fulfil the order [from the chief executive],” she said, “It should be done to lead the city out of the pandemic.”

She added that conducting a mass testing exercise required a “long lead time” to plan, and could not be undertaken quickly. The top priority right now was to focus on treating severe cases, she said.

Lam said the government would announce a date for the universal testing in due course.

Restrictions on movement

The government would need to ensure the city’s operations were not unduly affected while conducting the universal testing exercise, Lam said, conceding that there would be a certain level of restrictions on residents’ movement.

She said certain exemptions also had to be in place, given the city’s status as a financial centre. Citing the experiences of other countries, she added that residents would be allowed to purchase necessities at certain times of the week.

Asked if the decision to close schools from March 7 until April 22 – ostensibly to allow for the testing – had been in vain given the delay, Lam insisted that the institutions had been shuttered to ensure students’ safety. She did not say whether there would be an extension of the school closure if the mass testing exercise was conducted after they were due to reopen.

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Vu Im-fan, a local principal and chairwoman of the Subsidised Primary Schools Council, said her association had not been notified about any arrangements for mass testing yet, though she hoped the government would announce the details well in advance so they could better prepare.

She said the apparent postponement of the testing drive might not affect schools after all, as there was still ample time before the temporary closure ended. Still, she added that authorities should be aware that the clock was ticking, and noted the “break should not be extended too long” if testing was deferred beyond the current end date.

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Care for severe patients

Queen Elizabeth Hospital was being converted into a designated hospital for Covid-19 patients, Lam said, adding that the conversion is expected to be completed by Sunday.

Hospital Authority chief executive Dr Tony Ko Pat-sing said about 380 patients there would be moved, including 250 who would be transferred to other hospitals, some of them private. Outside of life-threatening emergency situations, non-Covid patients who turn up at Queen Elizabeth’s accident and emergency department will be turned away. The hospital’s conversion will free up 1,500 beds for Covid-19 patients.

Ko added that more public hospitals would soon be converted into designated facilities for coronavirus patients, including Ruttonjee Hospital, Fung Yiu King Hospital and Kowloon Hospital.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Jordan will be converted to a coronavirus-only hospital to tackle the wave of infections. Photo: Jelly Tse

Care for the elderly

Lam said more community isolation and temporary care facilities for elderly people with mild symptoms would be set up.

While there are already 1,000 beds for such patients at AsiaWorld-Expo, as well as temporary care centres converted from two sports facilities in Kwun Tong and Shek Kip Mei, Lam said 1,200 beds would be added from a converted site at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. Seven more indoor sports centres will also be repurposed.

Private hospitals have been asked to contribute manpower for the extra facilities, and the government is also recruiting carers in the city and from mainland China.

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All elderly residents at nursing homes will also be given their first vaccine dose by March 18, and plans are in the works for inoculating seniors who live alone. Closed-loop staffing arrangements will also be implemented at nursing homes with no prior infections, and hotel accommodation will be arranged for carers, along with designated transport, to avoid further outbreaks at the facilities.

For elderly patients with mild symptoms who are isolating at home, an anti-epidemic pack including rapid test kits, Chinese medicine, a thermometer and a health care handbook will be sent to their homes without the need to register with the government.

Medical officers will also make phone calls to elderly residents isolating at home to check on them and conduct remote consultations, and seniors will be given priority at designated clinics for Covid-19 patients if treatment is needed.

Daily press conferences

Lam said high-level daily press conferences would be led by her and relevant ministers starting at 11am every day except Tuesdays, when her weekly de facto cabinet meetings are held.

“I hope that in the future, we can directly answer questions,” she said.

She added that the briefings, which would be held in addition to the daily afternoon press conferences by the Centre for Health Protection and Hospital Authority, would continue until the fifth wave was over.

“The earlier we win over this epidemic, the earlier we could cancel this [high-level] press conference,” she said, adding wryly: “I believe the public will not want to see me all the time too. If you don’t see me, that means Hong Kong has already returned to its normal life.”

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