By Chris Yeung —
It was only just one month ago that a compulsory universal Covid-19 testing of all Hongkongers was no longer a question of if and when but how after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a citywide programme.
Bowing to mounting pressure from the pro-establishment camp with seemingly backing from the mainland authorities, she announced on February 22 mass testing of 7.5 million people will be held in March. Lam said there would be three rounds of tests. With full support from the mainland experts and healthcare staff, testing, medical and isolation facilities will be upgraded to cope with the various demands.
As the debate of testing shifted to how, speculation that a city lockdown would be imposed during the testing began to heat up. Remarks by health minister Sophia Chan on February 28 that a lockdown had not been ruled out added more fuel to the fire. Supermarkets saw panic buying. Business elites were said to have fled the city.
On Monday, Mrs Lam told a press conference universal testing would be put on hold, saying that was the broad consensus of mainland and Hong Kong medical experts.
For the first time, she revealed a string of figures to illustrate the enormity of a citywide testing. Over 500 testing centres to be staffed by 80,000 people will be required. Each round of testing will last for three days operating 14 hours each. There was no estimate of the total costs, she said, adding that money is not an issue in the battle against the epidemic.
The principle, she said, is that the benefits of testing must be far greater than the costs.
Mrs Lam quoted experts as saying the best time of mass tests is either at the early stage of a community outbreak or when the outbreak ebbs.
With the early stage of the fifth wave long gone, the logical guess is that the Government will be eyeing at the time when the latest outbreak begins to ease. The fact Mrs Lam gave no indication of the likelihood of an universal test at a later stage shows the idea may now only exist in name but not in reality, at least in the short-run.
Instead, she called on those who kept putting pressure on her even before she attended the press conference to rethink its feasibility and effectiveness – as if she had forgotten she rolled out the mandatory plan last month.
If the shelving of the plan had not come as a surprise, it is because Mrs Lam started paving the way for an about-turn on March 8 when she held a press conference to announce a set of new anti-epidemic initiatives. They include a daily meet-the-press session she personally chaired – with her mask taken off – finally.
Although the March testing was still on the cards, she said it was not the priority task. The top priority then, she said, was to focus on treating severe cases, she added.
Her remarks fell in line with the advice of Liang Wannian, head of a National Health Commission expert team, at the end of his visit to Hong Kong in mid-March.
Liang cast doubts about the effectiveness of an universal testing in the city when the fifth wave has not yet peaked. He reportedly said any decision to defer the testing to April or May, or even scrap it on the basis of science, facts and the epidemic situation would be okay.
Liang, who was described as a strong advocate of “dynamic zero infection”, has ironically emerged as the key figure behind the subsequent change of the city’s anti-covid strategy, arguably towards “living with the virus.”
There is no doubt the nation’s “dynamic zero-infection” will still be the long-held goal of the SAR’s anti-epidemic battle. But with infection rate soared, death toll risen, business elites fled and the city brought to a standstill, pragmatism has prevailed following the fact-finding trip of Liang.
The roadmap of lifting social distancing restrictions announced by Mrs Lam on Monday aims to restore business and daily life to normality gradually, or to put it plainly, to live with the virus as the city strives to achieve zero infection.
With Beijing’s blessing clearly behind Mrs Lam’s decision, advocates of universal testing from the pro-Beijing camp such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong have shut up, at least for now.
A DAB legislator Holden Chow Ho-Ding said he respected the Government’s decision, saying any decision should be based on science. That could not be a more disingenuous comment.