Hong Kong is making plans to test every one of its 7.3 million residents for Covid-19 as a surge in Omicron cases threatens to overwhelm its healthcare system.
“The Hong Kong government will strengthen various measures, including making plans for mandatory citywide testing,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a news conference on Friday, adding that mainland China would “support” the testing measures.
The Covid crisis has also forced the postponement of the planned selection of the territory’s next leader.
Hong Kong is currently registering thousands of Covid cases a day. Hospitals are reaching the breaking point because authorities still require everyone who tests positive to be admitted, and the Beijing-mandated zero-Covid policy is collapsing.
A small committee of Beijing loyalists had been set to choose the city’s new chief executive in late March, with nominations for candidates to open on Sunday.
But Ms Lam said the selection would now need to be pushed back to May 8.
“The decision is due to Hong Kong facing the most severe situation since the pandemic began two years ago. It is a critical situation,” she told reporters.
“One of the measures that we are planning — planning very seriously — is a mandatory universal testing. So we will test everyone in Hong Kong,” she said, although she once again ruled out a full city lockdown.
Mass testing has been used frequently on the Chinese mainland alongside strict lockdowns to quickly stamp out clusters.
But it is unclear what effect it will have in a city with so many daily infections and where a mainland-style lockdown would be hard to pull off
It is also not clear where Hong Kong would house and isolate so many positive cases once discovered.
Ms Lam said the new measures were “in line with the spirit expressed by President Xi Jinping in his important instructions, namely that we must make controlling the epidemic our overriding priority”.
Earlier this week Mr Xi had called for Hong Kong to take “all necessary measures” to suppress the current outbreak.
Like mainland China, Hong Kong has stuck to a rigid zero-Covid policy that largely kept the virus out but left the international business hub cut off for the last two years.
Those defences have now come crashing down with the highly infectious Omicron variant entry into the local community after infected flight crew and residents returned from overseas.
On Friday authorities announced 11,000 new infections. A day earlier it was 12,000.
Prior to the current outbreak, Hong Kong had recorded just 12,000 infections for the whole two-year pandemic.
The surge has caught the government off guard with few preparations in place for dealing with zero-Covid being breached.
Authorities have since scrambled to locate thousands of hotel rooms and unused public housing blocks to isolate the infected as well as a location to build a temporary hospital — and sought help from the Chinese mainland.
It comes at a politically sensitive time for Hong Kong.
Beijing is currently remoulding the once outspoken city in its own authoritarians image after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests erupted in 2019.
It has imposed a national security law that criminalises much dissent, and new “patriots only” political changes that vets anyone standing for public office for their political loyalty.
The new chief executive selection was supposed to be the final step in this new process.
Beijing has also given no indication whether it wants Ms Lam, or someone different, to lead. No serious contender with a realistic prospect of success has announced a candidacy so far.