Hong Kong leader defends universal virus testing scheme

Hong Kong -Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, on Tuesday, loosened coronavirus restrictions and defended an upcoming universal virus testing scheme, calling criticisms of it politically motivated.

In a press conference, Lam said that getting the city operating normally again was the motivation for the mass testing.

“The purpose of launching the universal community testing is to identify, as early as possible, any silent transmitters in society,’’ she said.

Tests would let the government feel safe enough to ease social-distancing measures, so that Hong Kong’s economy and people’s livelihoods could return to normal as soon as possible, Lam said.

Lam announced the new testing initiative last week after a spike in daily coronavirus cases.

It will run for two weeks, starting Sept. 1, and aims to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus by testing as many as five million people.

The government also announced on Tuesday that, starting from Friday, restaurants could resume evening business and venues including sports grounds, cinemas and beauty parlours could reopen.

According to official figures, Hong Kong’s restaurant revenues fell to a record low in the first three months of 2020, plunging by almost a third.

Joseph Tsang, a leading infectious disease expert, criticised the government’s decision to relax restrictions before the two-week testing was complete.

Speaking during a radio interview with RTHK, he forecast 20 daily new cases in Hong Kong in September, many of which could be detected during the testing scheme.

He added it would be “embarrassing” if the government lifted measures before getting to grips with the number of asymptomatic carriers.

The testing scheme, which is backed by China, also came under heavy criticism amid concerns that the handling of sampling data posed a risk to privacy.

In an interview with broadcaster RTHK, Lam said that critics of the testing scheme wanted to discredit the Chinese central government, which is assisting in the citywide operation.

“I would make a strong plea that well-known people, especially in the relevant professional area, should express their view in a more responsible way,’’ she said.

“This is about public health, let us focus on public health.’’

Other widespread criticism has come from the medical community, members of which have raised questions about the effectiveness of the scheme.

Lam rejected accusations that people queuing up for mass testing would be put at risk and said that appointments would be booked, using an online system.

Lam added it was unreasonable to compare the universal community testing to the 2020 Legislative Council elections, which were postponed for a year due to the contagion risks posed by thousands queueing to cast their ballots.

The election was postponed one day after 12 pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from the race.

According to Lam, the planned tests would only be identified with an individual barcode, though concerns were raised about data being used for surveillance in the territory.

Hong Kong has reported 4,692 cases to date, with the number of daily cases falling back into single digits, after a recent surge in locally transmitted cases.


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