Mainland China to help overwhelmed Hong Kong with COVID fight

Pedestrians wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak walk on a street at Causeway Bay district in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2022. REUTERS/Joyce Zhou

HONG KONG, Feb 12 (Reuters) - China will help Hong Kong to cope with an expanding COVID-19 outbreak by providing testing, treatment and quarantine capacity, Chief Secretary John Lee said on Saturday, adding that there were no plans for a mainland-style lockdown for now.

Hong Kong and mainland China are among few places in the world still aiming to suppress every COVID-19 outbreak, but the Omicron variant has proven tough to keep under control.

Lee, Health Secretary Sophia Chan and Security Chief Chris Tang were part of a delegation who visited neighbouring Shenzhen on Friday and Saturday to discuss support measures with mainland Chinese officials.

The measures will give Hong Kong a breathing space as medical capacity becomes stretchedon all fronts, although there were no specific details of the plans and it was not clear how quickly they could be implemented.

"At the meeting we were all on the same wavelength," Lee told reporters on his return from Shenzhen. "All support will be provided. Rapid tests and help building isolation facilities are things we agreed on."

"There are no plans for a lockdown at this stage."

Lab personnel, hospital beds, protective equipment were included in the support potentially on offer, Lee said. Chinese officials have also promised to ensure supplies of vegetables and fresh produce to Hong Kong, after the city faced a shortage of such items earlier this week when truck drivers who tested positive for COVID-19 were unable to bring them in.

Hong Kong reported a record 1,514 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, up from Friday's 1,325 despite the most stringent social restrictions yet. Another 1,500 or so came out positive in preliminary tests which may be added to the count in the near future. Three more people died in the past 24 hours.

"This is the toughest battle against the virus of the past two years," Edwin Tsui, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, told reporters.

"Please stay at home. We need your cooperation."

Hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are already at around 90% occupancy, while isolation facilities were also nearing their maximum, authorities said.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to test every day, including the elderly and children, queuing for hours in tightly packed lines outside overwhelmed testing centres.

University of Hong Kong epidemiologists say the number of infections could reach tens of thousands a day in a matter of weeks, posing a major risk for the city's elderly, many of whom are not vaccinated after the city's success at keeping the virus at bay for much of the pandemic led to a sense of complacency.

Infections were recorded in some 42 elder care homes, Tsui said.

Some epidemiologists say only a full mainland-style lockdown for around two months could bring the infection count back to zero, but warn this would not be a definitive fix as Omicron could find its way back into the city again soon after.

In a pre-recorded interview with local broadcaster Now TV published late on Friday, Health Secretary Chan said she did not want to impose a lockdown and that it was preferable that residents "do it themselves" by staying at home.

Hong Kong has recorded more than 20,000 infections and just over 200 deaths since the start of the pandemic, far fewer than in most other places, but at significant economic and psychological cost.

Hong Kong is one of the world's most isolated large cities, with flights 90% down, and hardly any allowed to transit.

Additional reporting by Jessie Pang and Anne Marie Roantree; writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Lincoln Feast and Jane Merriman

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.