Most Hong Kong families will be expected to cover the cost of daily rapid Covid-19 tests required from students when in-person classes resume out of their own pockets, an education official said on Tuesday. However, health experts have urged the government to provide free test kits.

Speaking on an RTHK programme on Tuesday morning, the Under Secretary for Education Christine Choi said that most families would be expected to pay for students’ daily rapid antigen tests – a prerequisite for resuming in-person classes. The government will provide 10 million rapid antigen test (RAT) kits for underprivileged families, Choi said.

A Hong Kong school. File photo: GovHK.

Choi said that the rationale behind not providing free RAT kits to all was so that authorities could “better utilise resources to help students in need.” She predicted that purchasing the test kits “will not be a very large problem for typical families.”

Students will have to test every morning before school as that was what “doctors and experts advised,” Choi said, adding that she understood that the requirement meant children would need more time to get ready in the morning. She urged parents to practice conducting the tests with their children in advance, if possible.

Choi said there would not be exemptions or special arrangements for children with conditions such as autism. “I believe that teaching children about this [rapid tests] is not unachievable,” she said, suggesting that the period of time before the resumption of face-to-face teaching could be used to allow children to become accustomed to daily testing.

However, she added “if [the case] is very specific, and requires medical care, it would be another matter.”

For those who forget to take a rapid test before arriving school, Choi said the school will have to contact their parents and send the students home. But she said that students could take a test on the spot if their parents agree.

The government has not introduced a standardised approach regarding how schools should check whether students have taken a test that morning.

On the same radio RTHK programme, Chu Wai-lam, a primary school headteacher, said that letting students undergo rapid tests on the spot would not be viable. “If everyone does the test after coming to school, it will be a big problem,” he said.

Covid-19 rapid antigen test kits. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chu said his school would call parents to collect their children if they forgot to take a test, and that the students will not be able to attend lessons until a test had been taken at home or their parents brought their own RAT kits to test at school.

During her routine Covid-19 briefing on Wednesday morning, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the government would review the measure “a few weeks” after its implementation, including whether the frequency of testing should be adjusted, or if certain groups could be exempted.

Experts urge handing out free kits

University of Hong Kong (HKU) epidemiologist Ben Cowling told HKFP that he understood the rationale behind daily testing but thought the government should provide RAT kits, as sending students to schools should not be a “luxury.”

Just as Hospital Authority staff who are required to test daily are supplied with RAT kits, the same principle should apply to students and school employees, Cowling said. “I can’t think of a country in the world that requires testing but does not provide [citizens] with [the means to do so].”

Siddharth Sridhar, from HKU’s Department of Microbiology, told HKFP that the government’s move was “fair” and a “good” idea, but could be better streamlined and made more accessible. He said if daily testing before school were to be mandatory for a long period of time, it would be the “best if [kits] are provided free-of-charge.”

Sridhar said the test frequency could be reduced to three times a week to reduce waste while not compromising on the effectiveness of screening. He also suggested that the Centre for Health Protection expand its infection disease surveillance programme at child care centres and kindergartens to other schools to complement the daily rapid tests.

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Nevertheless, Cowling said doing rapid tests less frequently might not be enough to spot infections among students and stop potential outbreaks.

As of Tuesday, Hong Kong has reported 1,193,023 Covid-19 cases and 8,886 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

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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.