As a fifth Covid-19 wave sweeps across Hong Kong, the government is looking to transform hotels, student accommodation and housing estates into quarantine facilities. The city’s leader Carrie Lam called the lack of quarantine and isolation facilities the “largest bottleneck” the anti-epidemic effort now faces.

There is, however, no plan for a “wholesale” lockdown of the city, according to the chief executive.

People stand in a queue for the Covid-19 coronavirus testing in Hong Kong on February 12, 2022, as authorities scrambled to ramp up testing capacity following a record high of new infections.
People queue for Covid-19 testing in Hong Kong on February 12, 2022, as authorities scrambled to ramp up testing capacity following record numbers of new infections. Photo: Louise Delmotte/AFP.

The government is in talks with the hotel industry to acquire up to 10,000 hotel rooms to be converted into quarantine facilities, Lam said during a routine press conference on Tuesday.

Hotel rooms, student dorms, public housing

Instead of negotiating with individual hotels, Lam said her government was devising a plan that would “require hotels to deliver thousands of rooms in a short period of time.” She also noted that the government could invoke current epidemic laws to make use of the properties.

“I do not want to use my power, but I do have the power under Cap 599 to make a regulation to ask for their cooperation,” she said.

Authorities were also studying whether university student dormitory rooms could be used for quarantine and isolation. However, some dorm rooms continued to be occupied despite class suspension, so it was unclear if and when rooms could be freed up, Lam said.

Meanwhile, three newly-constructed and uninhabited public housing buildings at the Queen’s Hill Estate in Fanling and at the Lai King Estate near Kwai Chung will be deployed for quarantine purposes, offering 3,000 units in total. A housing estate in Fo Tan was used for quarantining close contacts during the early days of the epidemic.

These measures will add to the city’s existing capacity of community quarantine facilities used to house Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms and their close contacts.

carrie lam feb 15, 2022
Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Reiterating the position communicated by officials in the past week, Lam said her government has “no plans whatsoever to impose a complete, wholesale lockdown of Hong Kong.”

100 million rapid tests

To improve virus screening capacity, the first batch of rapid antigen test kits from mainland China will arrive in the city on Tuesday, Lam said. She thanked the Guangdong provincial government for the procurement of 100 million testing kits.

The kits will first be distributed to high-risk groups, such as care home residents and workers, and those living in areas where sewage has tested positive for the virus, as well as anti-epidemic workers.

Anti-epidemic workers from the mainland also began work on setting up a community treatment facility, Lam said, although no details could be provided at present. Last week, local media reported that the city’s government had began scouting locations for a temporary treatment and quarantine facility similar to one set up in Wuhan in the early months of the pandemic, with the mainland government’s help.

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“The problem we are facing is the magnitude, pace, and the severity of this fifth wave. It has outgrown our capacity, so the immediate response of the Hong Kong government is to seek support from the central government to enhance its capacity,” Lam said.

The government is not against citywide compulsory testing in principle, she said, but chose instead to focus on specific areas due to limited resources.

Dedicated taxi fleet & clinics

As infection numbers have mounted, hospitals and ambulance services have been stretched to their limits. People have flooded to public hospital emergency rooms, while thousands more are waiting to be sent to quarantine or to hospital.

taxi taxis hong kong red green
File photo: GovHK.

A dedicated taxi fleet will help transport patients and close contacts to facilities, Lam said. The fleet’s drivers will be given infection control guidelines to prevent transmission during transportation, Lam said. She thanked those in the industry for stepping up to assist in the city’s fight against the virus.

The Hospital Authority will also convert some of its clinics to treat patients with mild symptoms. Further announcements on such measures were expected on Tuesday afternoon.

Hong Kong has recorded 25,051 Covid-19 cases and 221 deaths since the pandemic begun.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.