'Ambush' lockdowns: Hong Kong tries radical Covid testing strategy

Authorities take to sealing off residential blocks without warning and can break into homes if people do not submit to testing

Hong Kong is locking down entire residential blocks without warning as part of a controversial new strategy to contain outbreaks of Covid-19.

Over the past 10 days, squads of Hong Kong police officers have launched “ambush-style” lockdowns of residences, forcing everyone to be tested for Covid-19 or be fined HK$5,000 ($645). Viral footage of one operation showed dozens of officers sprinting up a street, unfurling a roll of tape to cordon off a building and its occupants, as bystanders jump out of the way.

On Tuesday the government said authorities could break into people’s homes and forcibly remove them if they did not submit to testing. Amid growing anxiety, local media has published guides on how to guess if your home might be next.

Reading about the Hong Kong government’s “ambush lockdowns”, where they pick an area that’s seeing a rise in covid cases and then drop a surprise lockdown on it, not letting anyone in or out until everyone inside the area tests negative pic.twitter.com/9mFOeN6hng

— Paul Haine (@paul_haine) January 30, 2021

The government has defended the strategy and vowed to continue, despite criticism that it is causing anxiety and alarm for little impact. Authorities have reportedly detected about a dozen cases among more than 10,000 tested.

Hong Kong has avoided major lockdowns, instead enduring fluctuating social restrictions to suppress successive waves of infections. The latest outbreak is the fourth of significance, and while daily case numbers are now dropping, the targeted lockdowns of buildings are increasing. The government plans to average one a day until the beginning of the lunar new year next week.

The lockdowns last just a day or two, with people are sent downstairs to temporary testing sites. The quick turnaround is made possible by Hong Kong’s increased testing capacity, from fewer than 10,000 a day last year to 100,000 a day now.

They have mostly targeted sites of infections in the densely populated neighbourhoods home to older buildings, often overcrowded with numerous subdivided units, and lacking centralised management. But it also includes any shops in the building and the employees or customers who happen to be there.

The tactic has been divisive. Some of the 400 residents of two Lam Tin buildings that were locked down said the ambush was unnecessary and “a mess”, while others said it gave them peace of mind to know no new cases had been found.

The low number of cases found has prompted questions of cost effectiveness. The first operation, in the densely populated Kowloon neighbourhood of Jordan, found 13 infections amid 7,000 tests last weekend. The most recent, testing more than 2,000 people, found zero.

On Tuesday Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, said that was “good news”, because “that means that area has zero infection”.

However, the assertion is not necessarily true, said associate professor James Trauer, head of Monash University’s epidemiological modelling unit.

“Presumably they’re locking down a block and waiting for the results, and getting a snapshot of who is infectious at that point in time, but then there is an incubation period,” Trauer told the Guardian. “It’s typically only three or four days but it can be as long as 14 days.”

Trauer said it was “doubtful” the strategy would work very well, and appeared similar to one employed in the Australian city of Melbourne in the early stages of its major outbreak last year.

“We started off locking down tower blocks, and then postcodes, but really the spaces the virus was transmitting over was bigger than the areas we drew lines around,” he said. “People’s social networks typically don’t obey these rigid spatial boundaries.”

Sophia Chan, the secretary for food and health, said the snap lockdowns allowed authorities to quickly identify and isolate cases and close contacts. “We don’t think this put a heavy burden on people or was a waste of public money,” she said.

• This article was amended on 12 February 2021 to correct the spelling of Sophia Chan’s first name.


Helen Davidson in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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