Hong Kong’s government is set to launch a China-backed Covid-19 mass testing programme that could involve millions of people, with top officials urging the public to take part despite scepticism from some experts and suspicion from some democratic activists.

Online registration starts at 7am Saturday for the voluntary programme, which will begin next Tuesday at 141 testing centres including schools and sports centres from 8am to 8pm daily.

patrick nip
Patrick Nip. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Interested parties must provide their names, HKID number and contact phone number.

Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip said Friday the testing, which may last up to two weeks, would help identify asymptomatic patients and end invisible chains of transmission within the community.

Some of the testing centres had been designated as polling stations for the now-postponed legislative elections originally scheduled on September 6. The government cited public health concerns for the postponement whilst activists slammed the decision as politically motivated.

Asked by reporters on Tuesday why the testing could go ahead when the election could not, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said it was inappropriate and unreasonable to compare the two as the testing would be spaced out over a longer time span.

Nip was confronted with the same question and also said the two situations were very different. He cited the online booking system to avoid people gathering during the community testing and said elections involved not just polling day but also campaigns that attract crowds.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

“The priority of the whole community during this time is to fight the epidemic. And the launch of this universal community testing programme is exactly one of the epidemic measures… We make a very conscious effort to reduce gathering of people in centres and also make it convenient, efficient. It’s entirely very different,” he told a press conference.

Amid public disquiet about possible misuse of data, Nip said all samples would be kept within Hong Kong rather than being sent to mainland China, and would be destroyed after testing.

Nip urged the public to take part in the testing, which will last for at least a week. He emphasised that the testing is voluntary and free and said participants’ personal data will be well protected.

Relaxation of social distancing measures

Three social distancing measures have been relaxed from Friday.

covid covid-19 coronavirus face masks mtr central
Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

Restaurants – which should operate at less than 50 per cent capacity – can stay open for dine-in customers till 9pm rather than 6pm previously but no more than two people can occupy each table.

Cinemas and beauty parlours can reopen along with outdoor sports facilities that involve “less body contact” — including athletic tracks, tennis courts, golf courses, bowling greens, shooting and archery ranges, horse riding schools and model aircraft flying fields.

Visitors to country parks or people doing strenuous physical exercise are exempted from mandatory face masks. But a ban on group gatherings of more than two people in public places will remain in force at least until next Thursday.

Two Covid-19 patients died in public hospitals on Friday morning, bringing the overall death toll to 83. The total number of local confirmed cases in Hong Kong stands at 4,768.

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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.