By Twinnie Siu and Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong will roll out compulsory testing for COVID-19 starting in mid-March for its 7.4 million residents, leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday, as university researchers predicted new infections could peak at a staggering 180,000 a day next month.
Stringent coronavirus rules would be in place until mid-April with schools breaking early for summer and resuming the new year in August, she said, as authorities battle an “exponential” rise in infections which have overwhelmed the healthcare system.
Hong Kong is home to some of the most densely populated districts on Earth, with the majority of people living in high-rise apartment blocks cheek by jowl with family members and often sharing cramped lifts.
“The coming one to three months are crucial in fighting the pandemic,” Lam told a press briefing.
Residents would need to test three times under the compulsory testing scheme with daily testing capacity reaching one million. Venues including school campuses could be used for testing and isolation, she said.
The measures are the most draconian to be implemented, two years into the pandemic in the global financial hub.
Lam reiterated the city’s “dynamic zero COVID” strategy similar to mainland China, aiming to eradicate any outbreaks at all costs. She repeatedly thanked mainland authorities for their “staunch support.”
She said authorities were not considering a city-wide lockdown, like those in mainland China. The central government would however help to build a temporary hospital.
Health authorities in the former British colony reported 6,211 new cases, 32 deaths and a further 9,369 cases that came up positive in preliminary tests. They said a backlog in testing meant they were unable to get a full picture.
In a paper titled “Modelling the fifth wave of COVID-19 in Hong Kong”, researchers at the University of Hong Kong said they updated their Feb. 10 study to show the number of daily deaths potentially peaking at near 100 by late March, and cumulative deaths potentially rising to around 3,206 by mid-May.
Infections could peak at 180,000 a day.
Less than two weeks ago, the same researchers had predicted daily infections potentially peaking at around 28,000 by mid-March with a total of 954 deaths by the end of June.
In the absence of much more intensive social distancing measures, like a city-wide lockdown, “the trajectory of the fifth wave is unlikely to change substantially from its current course”, the study said.
Hong Kong has reported that since the start of February daily infections have surged by around 70 times, overwhelming the government’s testing, hospital and quarantine capacities, as it attempts to stifle the virus.
Hong Kong already has some of the world’s toughest rules to curb COVID-19. Stringent restrictions mean that very few flights are able to land while most transit passengers are banned.
Lam said a flight ban from nine countries including the United States and Britain would remain in place until April 20 with other countries potentially being added to the list.
Gatherings of more than two people are banned and most venues, including schools, gyms and beauty salons, are closed.
July-August holidays for schools, which are conducting lessons online, would be brought forward to March-April. Lam said she hoped face-to-face classes could take place from April, with the new school year beginning as normal in August.
The restrictions, which were first imposed in 2020, are testing the patience of residents, as fatigue and anxiety sets in with businesses across the city reeling from the closures.
In total the city has reported over 60,000 infections, far less than other similar major cities. However a large proportion of the vulnerable elderly population remain unvaccinated.
Lam said the city’s vaccination rate should reach around 90% for one dose by March, up from around 86% currently.
“Stay confident and we will see the rainbow,” Lam said.
The study anticipated that the number of infected people in 7-day isolation could potentially reach over 600,000, while the number of close contacts in seven-day quarantine could reach 1.8 million, leading to a substantial disruption in society.
(Reporting by Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Marius Zaharia and Farah Master; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)