Hong Kong’s leader has defended the lockdown of four North Point tenement buildings as a necessary intervention to stop Covid-19 spreading in the area, after a district councillor questioned the effectiveness of an operation that did not identify any new infections.
As the lockdown was easing, police officers in Sham Shui Po district launched a sudden law enforcement operation from 7am on Friday at six buildings, checking more than 220 residents and issuing HK$5,000 fixed penalty tickets to 15 who failed to produce proof of having completed mandatory virus testing.
In North Point, residents in blocks A to D of Tung Fat Building were on Thursday night confined to their homes and ordered to get tested for the coronavirus, before the restrictions were removed the following morning.
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Workers in the area were from 7am allowed to leave the cordoned off section – 12 hours after the restrictions were imposed – but it was not until 11.30am that the lockdown was formally lifted.
Also on Friday, officials confirmed another 50 new coronavirus cases citywide, ending a five-day streak of the daily caseload falling. All but two of the new cases were locally transmitted and included 16 untraceable infections. Two infections were imported.
The city’s infection tally stood at 10,371. The virus-related death toll rose to 178 after a postmortem test on a relative of a previously confirmed patient came back positive.
About 30 people tested preliminary-positive for the virus.
None of the 475 residents screened during the lockdown of 660 North Point households were found to be infected, according to a government statement.
About 360 government workers were mobilised for the operation. Police officers were seen on Friday morning enforcing the operation by checking whether residents leaving the old housing blocks held negative test results.
Fifteen people in the lockdown area were each fined HK$5,000 for not getting tested. Among them were seven staff members of Villa Villa restaurant. The employees, who have since been screened, said none of them had been told to get tested.
About 190 households in the restricted area have so far not responded to official contact, including those previously confirmed as positive and their close contacts. That figure is also said to include unoccupied flats. The authorities said they would follow up on those households.
But Eastern district councillor Lee Yue-shun estimated that about 1,000 people lived in the four blocks – double the number actually tested – as he noted that the buildings contained many subdivided flats.
Lee said he feared that hundreds of residents from the restricted zone might not have been screened.
The government said later on Friday that about 1,300 people in the area had been tested since Tuesday, which was around the time a number of infections were reported.
The lockdown was the third in a series of similar operations restricting the public’s movements in coronavirus-hit areas to allow for comprehensive testing in less than a week.
Defending the North Point operation, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said it was necessary because the four buildings were more than 60 years old and several occupants had previously been infected.
In the future, such lockdowns needed to be imposed much faster, while at the same time minimising the inconvenience for residents, she added.
“Having considered the number of cases there, the conditions of the buildings and our capacity to executive the operations, we thought that there was a practical need to test the people there,” she wrote on Facebook. “[The operation] can achieve zero infections in the area, cut the transmission chain and put residents’ minds at ease.”
But Lam’s statement failed to dispel wider questions as to why the site was chosen, as it did not meet several criteria mentioned by her before to justify the two previous lockdowns – including sewage samples consistently testing positive for the coronavirus or the presence of “three-nil” buildings, those without owners’ corporations, residents’ organisations or property management companies.
All four blocks of Tung Fat Building have an owners’ corporation and a property management firm.
At a regular press conference, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection, said she did not have all the details, but believed the government had considered multiple factors not limited to sewage testing and the types of buildings there.
About 60 residents of Block C had already been evacuated on Wednesday to address concerns about possible vertical transmission of the virus, with authorities confirming 13 infections in the building.
Lam said when she visited the site on Thursday night a resident complained to her about having to be repeatedly tested. But she said repeat testing after lockdown was necessary, adding she thanked him for doing so.
Lee said some residents had already fled the area before the lockdown was imposed. He doubted the effectiveness of the operation, especially given that no infections were found.
“What’s the point of this operation?” he asked on a radio programme.
Infectious disease expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu said an analysis of how effective a lockdown had been should not be based solely on the number of cases it unearthed. But rather, it should centre on the precision and speed of the decision.
“The bigger question now is where are those 190 households which did not answer the door when officers approached them,” he said.
He suggested that once officials spotted just one or two infections in an old building judged to be prone to virus spread, they should impose mandatory testing and a lockdown at the same time as waiting for four or five days after compulsory screening had found more cases would give worried residents time to flee.
That could mean dozens of single blocks being cordoned off by police officers at one time across the city, rather than a large swathe of areas and streets put under lockdown, as had been the case in the first such operation in Jordan last weekend, Leung said.
Other hotspots in the city continued to report new infections on Friday. Yau Tsim Mong district had seven more cases, including four in the Jordan designated testing area and two from the zone in Yau Ma Tei. Sham Shui Po had another three cases, with one of them from the designated testing area, while 11 more were detected in Kowloon City, including three from its designated zone in Hung Hom.
Officials also moved to quarantine residents in the last four flats on the 18th floor of Block R of Luk Yeung Sun Chuen, after finding confirmed patients in three homes, and preliminary-positive ones in one other household.
One more recent traveller, who came from Dubai, was found to be carrying a mutated, fast-spreading strain of the virus, taking the total number of such cases found in Hong Kong to 21.
The government, meanwhile, on Friday launched a one-stop information website on Covid-19 vaccines that will be linked to an online booking system when jabs are rolled out.
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