Hong Kong will ramp up Covid-19 testing capabilities and free up beds at the Penny’s Bay quarantine facility by – eventually – allowing close contacts of infected individuals to quarantine at home. The moves come as the city battles to contain the fifth wave.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Hong Kong is currently pushing beyond its testing capabilities of around 100,000 a day, exceeding this number by 30,000 to 40,000.

“[W]ith the new outbreaks, this cannot be sustained if we don’t increase our facilities and manpower,” Lam said.

She added that the city will triple its testing capacity with the opening of a new facility in Ma On Shan, and will also distribute rapid testing kits to the public to encourage Hongkongers to test themselves.

A rapid antigen Covid-19 test. File photo: Wikicommons.

Close contacts will also be allowed to quarantine at home instead of at Penny’s Bay, allowing the facility to be converted into a hospital for Covid-19 patients with mild or no symptoms. No timeline was announced, but Lam said the move would ease the burden on hospitals, which have seen an influx in cases over the past month amid an uptick in Delta and Omicron variant cases.

131 new cases

Lam’s announcements came as the city saw another three-digit increase in daily Covid-19 cases. Hong Kong recorded an additional 131 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, with just one among them imported. Of the local infections, 59 – or almost half – had no known source of transmission, marking another record high of unlinked local cases since the fifth wave began.

A number of Friday’s unlinked cases confirmed are residents living in Sham Shui Po. Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the Centre of Health Protection’s Communicable Disease Branch, said authorities will investigate whether the patients know each other are otherwise connected in some ways.

She said in a press conference on Thursday that the increasing trend of unlinked cases is “not a good sign” as it signifies “quite severe community transmission at the moment.”

Chuang Shuk-kwan. File photo: RTHK screenshot.

Separately, nine staffers working at eight hospitals have tested positive or preliminary positive.

Hong Kong is in the midst of a fifth wave of the coronavirus, which began in late December when a Cathay Pacific flight attendant broke quarantine rules to eat dinner at a restaurant in Kowloon Tong’s Festival Walk.

Cases have ballooned since then, involving clusters at restaurants, residential buildings and schools. Kwai Chung Estate – which became the epicentre of the outbreak in late January after an infected cleaner is suspected to have spread the virus – has recorded 447 cases alone following days-long lockdowns and daily testing.

In the recent seven-day period from last Friday to Thursday, an average of 113.4 cases were reported per day, official data showed.

New restrictions expected

Lam also said that the government is seeking to tighten social distancing restrictions, but that they are pending the approval of the Executive Council next Tuesday. She did not elaborate on what restrictions will be added.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

“On January 7, we already announced our strictest measures of banning dine-in after 6 p.m. and closing a number of premises. But from what we have seen of public transport records, [movement] has only fallen by around 20 to 30 per cent,” Lam said.

“This is not good enough,” Lam said, adding that people attended festive gatherings and visited religious sites over the Lunar New Year.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.