Hong Kong on Tuesday (Feb 8) imposed its strictest social distancing measures yet as it struggles to maintain a “zero-COVID” policy amid an Omicron-fuelled spike in cases.
Like mainland China, Hong Kong has adhered to a staunch “zero-COVID” policy that has kept infections low through targeted lockdowns and prolonged social distancing measures. The approach has left it one of the most isolated major cities in the world.
But the spread of the Omicron variant in the Chinese territory is threatening to derail the strategy as cases rapidly tick up each day.
On Tuesday, city leader Carrie Lam announced gatherings in private premises will now be limited to two families – the first time Hong Kong has applied restrictions to homes. She did not detail how it would be enforced.
In public, all gatherings will now be capped at two people – down from four.
“We are now facing the most dire situation,” Lam said. “We have seen a surge in the number of confirmed cases and some are worried the real number would be beyond thousands each day.”
The city on Wednesday recorded 625 new cases – setting a new daily record.
Starting Thursday, Hong Kong will close hair salons and places of worship, while a vaccine pass will be rolled out on Feb 24.
The pass will bar the unvaccinated from shopping malls, supermarkets, wet markets and department stores.
Since the start of its Omicron outbreak in late December, Hong Kong had already closed gyms and bars, while restaurants are only allowed to serve takeout in the evenings.
The latest measures aim to buy time for Hong Kong to increase its vaccination rate, Lam said – which sits at less than 50 per cent for the elderly.
“The time has come for Hong Kong to take some tough measures,” she said.
Long lines formed outside local testing centres across the city Tuesday.
“It’s getting worrying,” said Maggie Wu, a barrister who had waited more than two hours to get tested near City Hall.
“I don’t think the economy will allow for a full lockdown,” she said, adding that Hong Kong needs to “reconnect to the world”.
Health officials said they have detected 19 infection clusters and urged the public to limit socialising.
A shortage of vegetables added to the misery as truck drivers who tested positive for COVID-19 were unable to bring them from mainland China.
Shelves stocking vegetables were bare across supermarkets in the city while crowds surged into fresh markets to snap up the limited produce available. Other food remained available.
At a market in the city’s downtown Wan Chai district, a staff member from Qiandama vegetable store, shouted to crowds not to enter.
“No more veggies inside … It’s like the battlefield,” she said as people tried to charge in.
Some vegetable and fruit stalls selling mainland Chinese produce were shuttered while others were selling produce at double their usual prices.
Hong Kong’s coronavirus policies have turned the Asian travel and business hub into one of the world’s most isolated major cities.
The economic and psychological toll from the hardline approach is rapidly rising, with measures becoming more draconian than those first implemented at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Flights are down by around 90 per cent, schools, playgrounds, gyms as well as most other venues are shut. Restaurants close at 6pm, while most people, including the majority of civil servants, are working from home.
Many health experts have said the current strategy of shutting itself off as the rest of the world shifts to living with coronavirus, is unsustainable.
Doctors say mental health is suffering, particularly in families where people are earning less, or children cannot go to school due to the restrictions.
Hunting the shops for vegetables, one 60-year-old man, who gave his surname as Ngai, said the authorities should help supply more food as prices had surged.
“The government doesn’t do anything, so the vegetable sellers are upping the price,” he said. “It’s really hard to be a Hong Konger.”