Three more Hong Kong neighbourhoods were suddenly locked down for mandatory Covid-19 testing on Tuesday night, hours after authorities warned they would seek court warrants to break into flats if necessary to tackle uncooperative residents citywide.
Residents of more than 20 coronavirus-hit buildings in Sham Shui Po, Jordan and Tin Shui Wai were placed under mandatory testing orders from 7pm and asked to remain at home until further notice, a day after the city’s No 2 official warned the public to be prepared for “at least one lockdown per day” until Lunar New Year.
As of Wednesday at 7.30am, residents of all three neighbourhoods who had tested negative were being allowed to leave the lockdown areas.
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No infections were identified in Sham Shui Po or Tin Shui Wai, while some test results in Jordan were still being verified, according to statements issued by health authorities.
Overall, about 1600, 300 and 270 residents were tested overnight in Sham Shui Po, Jordan and Tin Shui Wai, respectively. Officers are now following up on households where they were unable to contact occupants.
Earlier on Tuesday, authorities also ordered all workers at an outlet of retail clothing giant Uniqlo at Langham Place in Mong Kok to undergo mandatory testing after three employees were infected.
It was the first time they enforced tighter screening rules announced on Monday under which two infections at any workplace would trigger mandatory testing for everyone in the premises.
The ramped-up testing was enforced even as the city confirmed just 25 new infections, its lowest daily tally since a recent rebound a month ago.
Only four of the new infections were untraceable, the lowest number since the beginning of the fourth wave of the pandemic in mid-November last year. All but one of Tuesday’s cases were locally transmitted, while around 20 people tested preliminary-positive for the virus.
The city’s overall infection tally now stands at 10,511, while two elderly fatalities took the related death toll to 184.
The day started with the Home Affairs Bureau warning the public that health authorities were empowered under disease control regulations to evict those failing to comply with screening orders in restricted areas, as well as to break into homes with a court warrant.
It said officials were repeatedly encountering situations where residents were believed to be at home but not answering.
“According to the relevant ordinance and the authorisation from the health authorities, the government may take legal action including removing individuals or applying to a magistrate for a warrant to break into and forcefully enter a unit,” it said, adding the government could also arrange for security guards to be stationed at the relevant premises.
“The government will also request bailiffs to assist in cordoning off the relevant premises as appropriate, and will request relevant persons to be responsible for the charges incurred.”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also expressed concern at the number of households not responding.
She was referring to four lockdowns imposed on Monday evening that ran overnight, targeting buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hung Hom, Yau Ma Tei and Yuen Long. More than 1,600 residents were tested in the four areas, but over 100 households could not be reached. No new cases were uncovered.
“Although we have not yet found any positive cases in the latest [areas], we are at the same time worried that many of the units apparently have not responded to our door knocking,” Lam said before a meeting with her Executive Council.
Health authorities laid out a more aggressive approach to testing on Monday, under which a residential building with one untraceable case and workplaces with two infections would have to undergo compulsory testing. Senior officials added the public might see at least one lockdown a day.
Lam said the lack of new cases emerging from the four lockdowns should reassure residents they were not living in high-risk areas, as she responded to concerns over the impact on communities.
“In terms of public health, a lot of work done is preventive. In fact, to have zero transmission or infections is the best public health achievement that could be made by any authority,” she said.
But authorities also faced criticism over Monday’s operations after some consumers – who just happened to be in Tsim Sha Tsui when the lockdown was imposed – were confined in the area.
A 10-year-old girl who was left alone at a hair salon was only allowed to leave after her mother pleaded with the media and police. The mother said officers originally told her daughter to spend a night alone in a motel in the lockdown zone, but eventually let her go after she was tested.
The bureau said the girl was allowed to leave “on the basis of discretion” after her identity was recorded.
On the inoculation front, Lam said there were at least two jabs using inactivated vaccine technology being developed in mainland China – by Sinovac and state-owned Sinopharm – and her administration had only recently asked Beijing for help in securing the relevant clinical data, which was needed for the approval process locally.
“My request for the central government’s support focused on these aspects,” she said. “I did not specify which vaccines we want.
“We just hope to approve the emergency use of some of these mainland-produced vaccines as soon as possible.”
Lam was asked about comparisons with Macau, which is set to launch its vaccination programme after the Lunar New Year holiday, with 100,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines.
“We still hope to get the data as soon as possible … The central government understands that Hong Kong has a legal framework for emergency use of vaccines, including data to be evaluated by experts, before recommending to the secretary for food and health,” she said.
Hong Kong has struck deals to purchase 22.5 million doses of vaccines, with 7.5 million shots each from three suppliers: Sinovac Biotech; British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca; and Fosun Pharma, which is handling the BioNTech vaccine, developed by the German company and US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Commenting on last Wednesday’s unprecedented virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping to update him on her year’s work, Lam said she believed the online arrangements were in place because of the Covid-19 situation in both Beijing and Hong Kong.
“President Xi said he was very concerned about the coronavirus infections spreading across the city,” she said. “Of course, as we are still struggling with the fourth wave of infections, it was reasonable for Xi to show his worries, as he always cares about Hong Kong.”
Lam added: “It would be unreasonable if the president said the city‘s situation was still severe, but he was not worried. Xi is just showing his concern and support for us.”
Earlier, health secretary Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said lockdowns would be imposed based on a range of considerations including the number of cases, a building’s structure and sewage testing results.
But University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung urged the government to explain its rationale for lockdowns more clearly.
“Conducting virus tests in restricted areas can be effective,” he told a radio show.
“But the government should not simply arrange a [lockdown] without giving detailed reasons when buildings without cases [were affected] because there are cases in the proximity.”
He said a better option would be to impose lockdowns at construction sites to test workers. A site at the airport’s third runway project recorded five more cases on Tuesday, bringing the total to 20.
The government also announced one-off compulsory testing for all 70,000 people working at the airport to prevent any spread of the virus via the city’s air border.
Additional Reporting by Chan Ho-him
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