The Hong Kong government is considering making coronavirus testing mandatory in some circumstances as more untraceable local infections emerge, but a pro-democracy activist told HKFP on Friday that he feared personal data could be transferred to mainland Chinese authorities.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said on Thursday that authorities were reviewing whether to change the existing legal framework in order to make testing compulsory. She did not say whether this would be universal or would target specific groups only.
A compulsory testing scheme was necessary to take the government’s public heath work forward, Chan said. The health minister expressed worries about “silent transmission chains” in the community, as the city has recorded nine local infections with an unknown source since last Sunday.
“From a public health perspective, we think testing is needed. People are not willing to take the test, then that hinders our work. This is not desirable,” Chan said.
The government launched a China-backed voluntary universal community testing scheme in early September, with close to 1.8 million people tested. The two-week programme identified 42 confirmed cases and cost taxpayers HK$530 million.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam had hailed the scheme as a success despite calls from pro-democracy activists and politicians to boycott the test, citing fears of DNA harvesting and the transfer of personal data to mainland China.
Chan said the government was aware of people’s worries and would look into ways to address the concerns. “The ultimate goal of our work is to protect Hong Kong people’s health… such a measure is required.”
In a separate media briefing Thursday, Director of the Department of Health Constance Chan said existing laws already allow authorities to conduct mandatory testing in some situations, but the government was reviewing whether additional powers were needed under “special circumstances.”
According to Section 15 of the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation, a health officer may put an individual under medical surveillance, or subject them to a medical examination or a test if it is suspected that the person is infected or had contact with someone who is.
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong told HKFP on Friday he believed there were data privacy concerns surrounding any plan for mandatory Covid-19 testing and the most “worrying” part of the scheme was the potential involvement of mainland companies.
Wong said current legislation could not guarantee that personal data would not be sent to mainland China. He said that because if was unclear whether the new proposal would be targeted at an outbreak or whether everyone would be forced to take a test, “I think it is time for Hongkongers to boycott this evil proposal.”
Hong Kong’s figures for Covid deaths and infections are low by international standards. As of Thursday, there had been 5,161 infections and 105 deaths in a city of 7.5 million. Local media reported that Hong Kong may see around eight additional cases on Friday.
Dr Ariane M. Davison, a virologist and immunologist, told HKFP on Friday there are similar laws in place in Australia and other countries to allow health officials to force a particular high-risk group or individual to undergo testing if they see a rise in communicable and notifiable diseases.
“It should be a public duty for high-risks groups or individuals within the community that may have Covid-19, to get tested,” Davison said.
She said that Hongkongers may be reluctant because those who test positive are often hospitalised or kept under government quarantine.
“[U]nlike countries where a positive test dictates you simply self-isolate for 14 days, the problem in Hong Kong is the fear of the ramifications of a positive test – protracted hospital stays, admission to unkempt quarantine camps, the separation of children from their families, and vice-versa.”
Additional reporting: Tom Grundy.