HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam appealed for calm on Tuesday after residents emptied supermarkets, stocking up on goods ahead of reports of mandatory mass COVID-19 testing and rumors of a city-wide lockdown.
Local media reported that mandatory COVID testing would begin after March 17, raising concerns that many people would be forced into self-isolation and families whose members tested positive would be separated.
Lam called on the public “not to fall prey to rumors to avoid unnecessary fears being stirred up” with the supply of food and goods remaining normal, according to a statement on Tuesday.
“There is no need to worry about the public, they should remain vigilant and pay attention to information released by the government to avoid being misled by rumours.”
Authorities plan to test the city’s 7.4 million residents three times over nine days, with the government recommending people stay at home during this time, Sing Tao newspaper reported, citing unidentified sources.
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Exemptions would be granted to those who purchase food, seek medical treatment and maintain societal operations. Hong Kong’s stock market would continue to operate, the newspaper said.
Lam had previously said she was not considering a citywide lockdown.
The Chinese-ruled city saw coronavirus infections rise 34 times to more than 34,000 on Monday, from just over 100 in early February. Deaths are also rising, with corpse storage facilities in hospitals and public morgues at maximum capacity.
Hong Kong continues to stick to a “dynamic zero” COVID policy, the same as mainland China, which seeks to curb all outbreaks at all costs. The Chinese-ruled territory has implemented its most draconian measures since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
The rules have heightened separation fears among many families, with many fleeing ahead of the mass testing program and the construction of tens of thousands of isolation centers.
Lam, who inspected an isolation center built in mainland China on Monday, said the team raced against time to “create a miracle” in the city’s construction industry.
The Tsing Yi facility, located in the northwest of the city, would provide about 3,900 rooms for infected people with mild or no symptoms and others who need to self-isolate, she said.
(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Michael Perry)
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