Hong Kong’s government on Friday extended a China-backed mass coronavirus testing programme and insisted it was worth the money, even though only two new cases were discovered among the first batch of 128,000 people tested.

Ministers said more than 917,000 people had registered for tests since Tuesday when the free voluntary exercise began and over 521,000 samples had been collected as of Friday morning, of which 209,000 had been tested.

Sophia Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Pro-democracy supporters have voiced suspicion that mainland Chinese staff helping to operate the programme could store data on Hongkongers, a suggestion denied by the Hong Kong government. Some public health professionals say the mass exercise is pointless and testing should be targeted on the vulnerable.

Officials said there were six positive results from the first 128,000 samples. Four of those had already recovered from Covid-19 but still had traces of the virus.

Hong Kong recorded 13 new confirmed infections on Friday, including the two identified by the tests.

Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip, who heads the programme, told reporters the seven-day testing programme would be extended for four days, till Friday next week. He said 54 of the 114 testing centres were fully booked from Tuesday to Friday and 27 of them have no vacancies until Monday next week.

Depending on demand, Nip said, the government may further extend the programme but it will end on September 14.

Patrick Nip. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan appealed to Hongkongers to take part in the mass testing, which she said could expose any hidden chain of transmission within communities and spot asymptomatic patients.

“This is very important for us, to have this whole picture of whether there are more silent carriers in the community,” she said.

Asked about the programme’s cost-effectiveness, Chan said it was worthwhile. “Even if we can find one positive case… I think that there may be more.” She emphasised that results from the testing programme – including negative results – would provide insights into the pandemic situation.

Two hundred technicians from China arrived on Thursday to help with the testing in addition to the 220 who have been in town since early August. Chan said they are mainly responsible for laboratory procedures and only local health care staff are involved in collecting samples at centres.

Government personnel collect sample for coronavirus testing. Photo: GovHK.

“One of the reasons of having even more efficient laboratory testing is with the help of the mainland team,” Chan said. “In this past eight months we have been ramping up our capacity.”

After weeks of renewed restrictions sparked by a third wave of Covid-19, the number of daily infections has been falling and some social distancing measures have been relaxed as of Friday. Dining-in hours at restaurants were extended to 10 pm. Some sports facilities including gyms can reopen with groups of up to four people allowed.

But facemasks are still mandatory in public except in country parks and for those taking strenuous exercise. The ban on groups of over two people remains in force.

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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.