Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced the government is to offer universal coronavirus testing to all citizens in a bid to curb the third, and perhaps the worst, epidemic wave in the city.
In a press conference on Friday, Lam said the free, city-wide tests would be conducted on a voluntary basis and could be rolled out in two weeks’ time.
She said the government has not finalised the details of the testing scheme but decided to make an early announcement due to “online smearing” which claimed that DNA would be sent to China: “We have seen much smearing about the support teams online and there have been biased views which put politics before people’s safety, so I needed to make a clarification.”
She added laboratories do not receive patients’ personal information, only their specimen bottles, after which the Department of Health identifies the source of the positive results using a barcode.
Last Sunday, seven experts from the mainland Chinese “nucleic acid test support team” arrived in Hong Kong to help expand the scope of its community Covid-19 testing, following a request from the chief executive.
Lam said owing to the limited capacity of Hong Kong’s private testing sector, three mainland-based laboratories would carry out the mass testing inside temporary facilities at the sports stadium of Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park in Sai Ying Pun.
The companies included BGI Group, KingMed Diagnostics and the Hong Kong Molecular Pathology Diagnostic Centre.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan defended criticism against the mainland personnel who have been made exempt from regulations requiring them to hold local qualifications: “They have been accredited by national bodies and they have been properly trained… their qualifications should not be called into query.”
The government also announced plans to collaborate with Yan Chai Hospital to expand the scope of testing to include pregnant women from next Monday. Groups that frequently come into contact with people, such as elderly caretakers, public transport workers and hotel staff, would be included as well.
Government officials also revealed plans to build a temporary hospital – similar to the Huoshenshan treatment facility in Wuhan – on a 32,000 square metre land next to the AsiaWorld-Expo. Lam said it would not be for short-term use but rather to equip authorities with the capacity to handle a public health emergency in the future.
In addition, 1,000 negative pressure units will be built inside the convention centre, which has been used as a community treatment centre.
At a Friday press conference, a group of Central and Western district councillors said residents had expressed “deep worries” over the makeshift testing laboratories.
Napo Wong – who represents Sai Ying Pun – questioned whether experts had checked the location’s ventilation system and other facilities to ensure the venue was fit for purpose. He also urged authorities to address concerns over the activities of mainland testing staff in the area, such as visiting restaurants, since they are exempt from the 14-day quarantine.
First detected in Hubei, China, more than 19 million people globally have been infected with Covid-19, resulting in at least 714,000 deaths, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University.
The local infection toll reached 3,938 on Thursday; 46 patients have passed away so far. Hong Kong saw a surge in cases last month, as it registered more than 100 daily infections for 12 consecutive days. The number of new cases has dropped to the double digits since Monday.
Correction 11/8: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that Sunrise Diagnostic Centre, China Dragon Inspection and Certification and Prenetics were set to conduct mass testing. In fact, the task will fall to BGI Group, KingMed Diagnostics and the Hong Kong Molecular Pathology Diagnostic Centre.