Citywide Covid-19 testing is currently “under consideration,” Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said on Thursday night, although she did not give any further details.

The chief executive’s remarks came after two state-backed newspapers reported that China’s leader Xi jinping had issued “important instructions” on Hong Kong’s fight against the fifth-wave outbreak, which has infected thousands daily and overwhelmed the public health system.

Carrie Lam meeting mainland experts. Photo: GovHK.

After welcoming the first batch of four experts from mainland China, who arrived in Hong Kong on Thursday night, Lam said the city’s authorities “will follow President Xi’s requests and put controlling the pandemic as the mission that supersedes all, in other words, not be distracted by other tasks.”

She told reporters that mainland authorities would satisfy the requests of the Hong Kong government and assist in raising the city’s Covid-19 testing capacity and sampling personnel.

“With such capability, a citywide test of all citizens is a measure that we are currently considering,” Lam said, adding that “the nation is able to handle the quantity [of tests.]”

However, Lam said officials were still working out the details. “If within a short period, we are to carry out virus tests on all 7 million people in Hong Kong, and they are nucleic acid tests instead of rapid antigen tests, it will be a huge operation,” Lam said.

As to whether a full lockdown would be implemented with citywide testing, Lam said it “depends on the city’s particularities.” Mainland authorities “have recognised that our own ways are suitable for Hong Kong’s special situation,” she said.

A queue for a Covid-19 test in Lei Tung, Sha Tin, on February 5, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

Earlier, local media published conflicting reports about the government’s plans to conduct citywide mandatory testing. Citing sources, some wrote that residents would receive three tests, be grouped according to their HKID card numbers, and that specimens might be sent to Shenzhen for processing. Others reported that the suggestions were  “tentative,” and “lacked details for execution.”

On Friday morning, the recently arrived mainland experts split into two teams. One team met with the Hospital Authority and Centre for Health Protection at the Central Government Offices to analyse the city’s current Covid-19 situation, while the other inspected the provisional laboratory at Ma On Shan Sports Centre.

Hong Kong has reported 37,071 Covid-19 cases and 242 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

‘Lockdowns’ in prisons

Meanwhile, the Correctional Services Department (CSD) imposed a “cell lockdown operation mode” on Friday in the face of Covid-19 outbreaks, with those in remand prevented from attending court hearings, local media reported.

According to Sing Tao, the Commissioner of Correctional Services Woo Ying-ming confirmed that a “cell lockdown” would take place in all correctional institutions from Friday, and that all 8,000-odd detainees would undergo three rounds of rapid tests.

Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Except for those who worked to provide basic needs, such as in the kitchen and laundry, inmates were required to stay in their cells to wait for test results. Working inmates would have to pass a rapid test before performing their duties.

All court cases involving remanded defendants would have to be adjourned, affecting over 100 cases in trial or pending mention, the newspaper estimated.

While Sing Tao said the measures were expected to last for at least one week, other local media reported that detainees would not be attending court until February 27.

On Thursday, the CSD has emptied two correctional institutions to act as quarantine centres for infected inmates, while visits by relatives and friends have been suspended until February 23.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.