Hong Kong’s leader has urged people to take part in a Beijing-backed free mass testing programme for Covid-19, saying critics are smearing the project to try to damage the semi-autonomous city’s relations with China.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam was speaking to reporters on Tuesday before the weekly meeting of her Executive Council, or cabinet.

Asked her response to the announced refusal by some medical experts – including leading microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung – to take the test, Lam said she could not figure why some experts air criticism and described them as politically motivated.

Carrie Lam. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“The so-called experts, doctors or members of the public kept finding excuses to stop citizens from participating in the test… There is only one intention behind this: political calculation. They are smearing the central [Beijing] government and it’s an effort to sever Hong Kong’s relations with the central government.”

Hong Kong has escaped relatively lightly from the pandemic with 4,691 infections so far and 77 deaths. It has been battling a third wave of infections but daily new cases have fallen sharply in recent days.

The Hong Kong leader has repeatedly thanked Beijing for helping her administration’s anti-epidemic efforts. It has sent experts to help with testing and provide assistance in building a temporary hospital.

Lam told reporters on Tuesday that the aim of the voluntary mass testing, scheduled to start on September 1, was to identity silent transmitters as early as possible so that the government would feel safer in working to rebuild the economy.

The programme was 100 percent voluntary, she stressed.

Asked why the risk of crowds gathering for the test was considered acceptable when the government had postponed legislative elections scheduled for September citing the virus, Lam said the comparison was “inappropriate and unreasonable.”

File Photo: Studio Incendo.

“I think there are a lot of differences between the two arrangements… It is inappropriate and just unreasonable to compare the elections to the universal community testing.”

She said the testing would not be crammed into one day and the use of online booking would hopefully avoid queues forming outside test centres.

Social distancing measures relaxed

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan told reporters after the Executive Council meeting that three social distancing measures would be relaxed from Friday.

Restaurants will be able to stay open for dine-in patrons until 9pm compared to 6pm previously. But the upper limit for each table remains at two people. Cinemas, beauty parlours and those outdoor sports facilities that involve “less body contact” will be allowed to reopen.

Sophia Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Chan acknowledged “fatigue” among the public after months of restrictions. She said users of country parks and those taking strenuous exercise outdoors would no longer have to wear face masks.

“The government cannot possibly wait until there are zero confirmed cases to relax social distancing measures,” Chan said, citing World Health Organization experts who caution that the world will have to learn to live with the pandemic.

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Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.