Hong Kong chief rules out Chinese-style lockdown as virus spreads

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Hong Kong (AFP) – The Hong Kong leader said on Tuesday she would not impose a strict lockdown on mainland China as the city faces its worst wave of coronavirus yet, even though she has vowed not to move on. with Covid-19.

For more than two years, Hong Kong has followed China’s zero-Covid strategy, but a surge of the highly transmissible variant of the Omicron virus has challenged the city’s ability to test, quarantine and treat.

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

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam ruled out that approach.

“We have no plan to impose a full and wholesale lockdown,” she told reporters.

But she also rejected calls from some public health experts and business figures to move from zero-Covid to a mitigation strategy.

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

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

Like mainland China, Hong Kong has battled the virus with largely closed borders, lengthy quarantines, contact tracing and strict social distancing laws.

With more than 2,000 new daily infections reported on Monday, and the figure hovering around 1,000 for much of the past week, the current surge is testing this policy like never before.

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

Supply squeeze

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

An AFP photographer saw patients lying on stretchers outside a hospital in Yuen Long district on Tuesday, with police in full protective gear nearby.

Close contacts of virus cases have already been sent to a government quarantine camp, but many are now being asked to self-isolate at home.

Lam said 3,000 apartments in newly constructed public housing buildings will be converted for quarantine use and authorities are also looking for 10,000 hotel rooms.

Last week, long queues of people waited to get tested, and many who tested positive said they had been turned away from hospitals.

Hong Kong has provided 100 million rapid test kits and will distribute one million a day to high-risk people once they arrive, Lam said on Tuesday.

The scenes in the city in recent days resembled the first phase of the pandemic, as shoppers emptied supermarket shelves to stock up on food and essentials.

Hong Kong imports most of its food and fresh produce from mainland China, and vegetable prices have soared in the past week due to a virus-related supply disruption.

Lam said Tuesday that his administration was recruiting more cross-border drivers and would consider water freight as an option.