Hong Kong’s zero-COVID strategy under pressure as cases soar

HONG KONG, Feb 7 (Reuters) – Hong Kong is expected to report a record of around 610 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, broadcaster TVB reported, in the biggest test yet for the city’s zero-COVID strategy as it grapples to contain a growing outbreak.

Around 300 others were found positive in preliminary tests, TVB said, citing an unnamed source.

The global financial hub, which is following mainland China’s strategy of suppressing all coronavirus outbreaks as soon as possible, has seen cases soar since January with over 2,000 infections compared with just two in December.

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The city recorded 342 cases on Sunday, slightly below the previous day’s record of 351 cases. Dozens of bank branches including outlets of HSBC and Bank of China (601988.SS) said they would suspend operations from Monday to help curb transmissions.

Health Secretary Sophia Chan said over the weekend that she expects cases to rise “exponentially”. read more

The former British colony has become one of the most isolated cities in the world, with flights down around 90% due to strict coronavirus regulations and schools, playgrounds, gyms as well as most other venues shut. Restaurants close at 6 pm (1000 GMT), while most people, including the majority of civil servants, are working from home.

The economic and psychological tolls from the hardline approach are rapidly rising, with measures becoming more draconian than those first implemented in 2020.

Government quarantine facilities are also nearing their maximum as authorities struggle to keep up with their rigid contact tracing scheme.

Authorities hold daily briefings providing details on each infected person including where they went and ate. As cases surge however, methods including scouring credit card statements and transport records to identify close contacts are far tougher. There are likely hundreds of transmission chains in the community, they said.

In total, Hong Kong has recorded 213 COVID deaths and around 15,000 cases since early 2020, far less than other similar major cities.

REVERBERATIONS

Health experts said the city’s current strategy of shutting itself off as the rest of the world shifts to living with coronavirus, is not sustainable. read more

Around 80% of the city’s 7.5 million residents have had at least one COVID-19 jab but the majority of elderly remain unvaccinated, government figures show.

Out of these around 40% have received the Chinese-made Sinovac (SVA.O) vaccine, believed to be far less effective against the disease than the one produced by Germany’s BioNTech (22UAy.DE), the other vacine available in the city.

Infections have been recorded across government departments from hospitals and housing to the independent anti-corruption body.

Two pet cats tested positive for coronavirus, the government said on Friday, as it urged pet owners to avoid kissing animals. In January, authorities ordered a cull of more than 2,000 hamsters in dozens of pet shops, after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive.

The government has also tried to assuage worries over a shortage of food from the mainland after some cross-border truck drivers tested positive. Several drivers have been forced to isolate but overall fresh food supply “remained stable”, it said on Sunday.

There have been shotages of imported foreign food and cost increases due to tight air restrictions.

(This story has been refiled to correct typo in headline)

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Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Michael Perry and Stephen Coates

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