By Selina Cheng, Kelly Ho and Tom Grundy.
The Hong Kong government has imposed its first Covid-19 lockdown in densely populated Jordan for 48 hours. The authorities have been struggling to curb the spread of the virus in Yau Ma Tei and Jordan – an area known for its old and subdivided dwellings, and home to many poor and elderly residents. Around 10,000 residents will be affected from Saturday whilst the authorities conduct compulsory tests.
The unprecedented move comes despite mandatory testing orders coming into force around Yau Tsim Mong in recent weeks. The lockdown represents the most drastic measure taken by the government since the pandemic started early last year.
The lockdown zone covers Kansu Street, Battery Street, Nanking Street and Woosung Street in Jordan. People will be restricted from leaving the area, but they will be allowed movement within it. Only essential workers such as those working in elderly homes or Hospital Authority staff will be allowed to enter the cordoned-off zone.
On Saturday morning, Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui said government personnel had begun escorting residents from their buildings to designated testing centres set up inside the cordoned off area. Residents must undergo nucleic acid testing before midnight Saturday.
“We understand the operation this time will cause inconvenience to citizens, but I spoke to some residents this morning and they are very willing to see the government stepping up the testing to identify potential confirmed cases in the community and stop the transmission chain,” Tsui said.
He added that the government mobilised over 3,000 personnel to implement this lockdown order. Police, Fire Services, Immigration and Customs and Correctional Services are among the officers deployed.
A press statement said that the government understood residents were worried and anxious: “Under the epidemic, their livelihood is seriously affected as businesses in the area have been hit hard and brought to a standstill. The Government hopes this temporary inconvenience will completely cut the local transmission chains and ease residents’ worries and fear, so that they will regain confidence in resuming social and business activities in the area, and return to a normal life.”
The statement said that simple food and basic cleaning tools for the residents restricted by the declaration are being supplied: “In the case when employees are unable to go to work because of the declaration, the Government hopes their employers can exercise discretion and not to deduct the salary or benefit from the employees.”
The outbreak in the Yau Ma Tei and Jordan area has yet to be brought under control, despite the roll-out of two zones where residents were required to undergo Covid-19 tests. Hong Kong added another 61 confirmed cases of Covid-19 on Friday – 26 were of unknown origins and 24 were residents in the Yau Tsim Mong area.
The number of cases spiked in the district, recording a combined 145 cases in the past four days, with over 30 cases each day. The figure represents more than double the number of previous daily cases, according to government data compiled by a group of volunteers which publish a database online.
Sewage systems in several buildings in the district have also been contaminated, with high concentrations of the virus found in water samples.
Day of confusion
It follows a full day of confusion whereby rumours of a lockdown were leaked to the press but no official confirmation was forthcoming until around 4 am on Saturday. District councillors told RTHK that tearful residents were desperate for information and some had been panic buying.
Yau Tsim Mong District Council Vice-chair Andy Yu told HKFP that he did not understand why the authorities made the official lockdown announcement at midnight, when residents were already worried and confused after reading media reports on Friday. He said if the government had confirmed the policy earlier, residents in Jordan could be more well-prepared to stay home, allowing them to stock up on food supplies and make arrangements for work.
“I can’t see how, by announcing the measure [at 4am], the government can achieve maximum effectiveness for the lockdown. Some residents who read the news already left the district before the lockdown,” Yu said. “Many residents were worried for the whole day. The authorities did not think from the perspective of the citizens at all.”
He added district councillors received several calls for help, including security guards who were not residents but had shifts in buildings within the sealed-off area when the lockdown was imposed.
Some shop owners also wanted to fetch their dogs from their stores, Yu said, but the authorities told the owners that they may not be allowed to leave the premises after entering.
The Prevention and Control of Disease (Compulsory Testing for Certain Persons) Regulation (Cap. 599J) provides that the government can restrict the movement of individuals subject to compulsory testing or seal off premises with epidemic outbreaks until all persons on the premises have undergone testing and test results ascertained, according to the Centre for Health Protection website.
Residents in the district appeared to have taken the news of lockdown in their stride, when an HKFP reporter visited the area Friday afternoon. Although government workers in protective gear were seen at near high-risk buildings to inspect plumbing systems suspected to have been contaminated by the virus, there was no heavy police presence in the area by mid-afternoon. Streets were unusually quiet and many shops were shuttered, with some notices saying they were closed due to the outbreak. Activities at a local wet market nevertheless went on as usual.
David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and member of the government’s Covid-19 advisory panel, told HKFP on Friday that an area lockdown was appropriate, and that he had last week proposed a lockdown to the government. Officials were hesitant at the time, citing concerns that plumbing systems in buildings with subdivided flats might already have been contaminated.