Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has defended changes in Covid-19 policy as “timely adjustments,” saying there were no U-turns as the government had responded to the “unprecedented” pandemic situation “as best as they could.”

Carrie Lam Covid-19 press briefing
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre), Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip (left) and Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong attend a press briefing on the Covid-19 situation on March 11, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

During the third day of her new daily Covid-19 press briefings, the chief executive on Friday denied that her administration had rowed back its anti-epidemic measures. She said the magnitude of the current wave of infections had grown beyond the normal capacity of the Hong Kong government.

Lam cited the decision announced on Wednesday to designate the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Covid-19 patients, saying all policy changes made were aimed to “enable Hong Kong [to] cope with the situation as best as we could.”

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“If you ask me three months ago, that was inconceivable… this could not be regarded as a U-turn. This is a timely adjustment in a policy in order to achieve the objective of protecting the safety and the health of the people of Hong Kong,” Lam said.

Series of U-turns

The authorities in Hong Kong appeared to have shifted their approach in combating the spread of Covid-19 since the fifth and worst wave of infections began earlier this year. On January 3, the government issued a statement denying and condemning online rumours that a border lockdown and a dinner dine-in ban would be imposed.

Two days later, however, Lam announced dine-in services after 6 pm would be halted, whilst bars, gyms and nightclubs were ordered to shut down. The city’s leader also declared a flight ban on eight countries.

The compulsory universal testing scheme announced by Lam on February 22 appeared to be a policy reversal as well, after Lam told the press on February 8 that the government did not choose to implement citywide testing because of “finite” resources in testing, medical treatment and quarantine facilities.

Lam and her principal official also gave conflicting messages regarding rumours of a citywide lockdown, with the chief executive declaring on February 22 that the government had no plans to do so because it would be “very difficult to implement.”

Wellcome Kennedy Town
Near-empty shelves previously with meat in a supermarket in Kennedy Town. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

But in less than a week, the city’s health minister Sophia Chan said the government had not ruled out a lockdown. Local media also reported on details of a potential lockdown citing sources.

The unclarified speculation triggered panic buying across the city. Shelves in supermarkets were emptied and vegetable prices shot up, as citizens feared they would not be able to purchase daily necessities during the rumoured lockdown.

On Friday, Lam initially rejected claims that her officials had leaked details of anti-epidemic policies to the press. It was in response to an HKFP question over whether the government should give clear and unified comments on Covid-19 policies following media reports citing different sources.

Carrie Lam
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam attendS a press briefing on the Covid-19 situation on March 11, 2022. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Lam said she could not “accept the accusation” unless proof was provided that her officials had deliberately leaked information. She then pointed to the daily press briefings as an “authoritative source” of information on the government’s work in fighting against the pandemic.

“Don’t accuse my ministers,” Lam said, but added that she did see some leaks with no identified source.

Citing “sources” in early March, Sing Tao reported that the nine-day testing would be coupled with a citywide lockdown, HK01 said citizens would only be barred from leaving their homes for the first eight days, whilst SCMP reported that the government was also considering localised lockdowns. Both Sing Tao and SCMP reported that exemptions would be granted to personnel responsible for “maintaining essential services.”

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She pledged that the government would be open and transparent to “instil the needed confidence” in leading the city out of the Covid-19 crisis: “I could tell you that I am as frustrated as some of you when there [was] government information being leaked out which should not be the case.”

As of Wednesday, Hong Kong has seen 586,017 cases of Covid-19 since the onset of the pandemic, and 2,869 deaths.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.