The sudden upsurge in the number of patients infected with Omicron has plunged the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) into an unprecedented health crisis that necessitates not only the full support and assistance of the central government in Beijing and the provincial government in Guangdong, but also the ongoing mobilization of manpower and resources to increase the weak capacity in testing, quarantine and hospitalization.
On February 8, Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed that the central authorities were concerned about the spread of Omicron in the HKSAR. On the same day, it was reported that mainland technicians specialized in the testing of the Omicron virus gradually arrived Hong Kong.
However, as the number of infected patients rose, the capacity of the Hong Kong health system was strained and overstretched.
On February 12, Secretary for Security John Lee led a number of ministers to Shenzhen, including Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang, and Secretary for Security Chris Tang. They exchanged views with the mainland health official and the Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) on the situation of the HKSAR. The meeting, which was presided over by John Lee and the Vice Director of the HKMAO Huang Liuquan, decided that both sides would set up sub-groups to strengthen coordination work. Officials from the National Health Commission (NHC) affirmed the efforts of the HKSAR government in dealing with the anti-Covid-19 work in the past two years.
During the meeting, the Hong Kong officials requested mainland assistance in several areas: (1) the dispatch of mainland experts to Hong Kong to assist in the process of epidemiological investigation; (2) the enhancement of testing capability in Hong Kong; (3) the construction of quarantine and isolation faciltities; (4) the supply of antigen testing kits; (5) the provision of anti-Omicron supplies such as beds, masks and protective gear. In response, the HKSAR, the NHC, the Guangdong government and Shenzhen government expressed their willingness to assist Hong Kong. Both sides also agreed to set up joint task forces to tackle the spread of Covid-19.
On February 15, when the cases of infection increased to more than 5,400, it was reported in Hong Kong that President Xi Jinping had made an important directive of assisting the HKSAR to combat the spread of Omicron. President Xi said that the HKSAR government had to shoulder the “main responsibility” of stabilizing the situation of the spreading Omicron, that it should mobilize all the available forces and resources as well as measures to protect the lives, safety and health of the Hong Kong comrades. At the same time, the central government and the local authorities, particularly Guangdong, would join the efforts at controlling the spread of Omicron.
Vice Premier Han Zheng also issued a directive saying that the HKSAR government and other related agencies should resolutely implement President Xi’s important instruction and spirit. Specifically, the central and Guangdong provincial authorities would need to grasp the issues of elevating the testing ability of the HKSAR, to provide health logistics and testing kits to Hong Kong, to help Hong Kong build up the necessary community quarantine and treatment facilities, to safeguard the supplies of fresh products, food and daily necessities, and to dispatch medical and health experts to Hong Kong to direct the joint efforts at curbing the increasing tide of Omicron.
Moreover, the central government decided to set up a triangular work coordination mechanism composed of the central health officials, the Guangdong officials and the Hong Kong counterpart to enhance coordination work.
On February 16, the HKMAO director Xia Baolong convened a coordination work meeting in Shenzhen to assist Hong Kong to resist the spread of Covid-19. The meeting studied how the central authorities, Guangdong and Shenzhen could and would implement the directive issued by President Xi to help Hong Kong curb the spread of Omicron. Obviously, immediate mobilization of the central agencies, provincial authorities in Guangdong, and the local officials in Shenzhen was made to implement the policy directive of Beijing.
On February 18, the Liaison Office director Luo Huining held a video conference in which many local business leaders were mobilized to express their support of the anti-epidemic measures, to donate money, and to provide logistical support such as hotel rooms and facilities for the HKSASR government and the hospital staff members to combat the spread of Covid-19. Many social groups advertised in the local newspapers in support of President Xi’s directive.
On February 18, the Executive Council of the HKSAR also reached a decision to postpone the Chief Executive election to six weeks. Chief Executive Carrie Lam cited the use of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to postpone the Chief Executive election from March 27 to May 8, because the priority of the HKSAR is to fight against the spread of Omicron in the city.
Although the central authorities, the Guangdong government and the Shenzhen officials have undoubtedly shown their full support of Hong Kong to combat Omicron, there are serious implementation gaps in tackling the fast-spreading disease in the HKSAR. Some private hospitals were reluctant to deal with the upsurge in the number of infected patients; some elderly homes refused to take back the elderly people after they were either tested negative or regarded as being able to return home by hospital staff; and the Hospital Authority showed a lack of capability and decisive leadership in coping with the patients, many of whom had to stay outside hospitals at nights to wait for their entry into hospital rooms. Although the Hospital Authority and its staff members have been working under tremendous stress and full credit must be given to all of them, their lack of capacity also demonstrated the relatively weak leadership and weak crisis management ability of public health officials, whose coordination with various departments concerned appear to lack efficacy in the process of policy implementation. Indeed, fatigue could be one of the problems as the fight against Covid-19 already lasted for over two years.
The recent abrupt increase in the number of patients infected with the fast-spreading Omicron was perhaps attributable to several factors: (1) the relatively lax efforts at educating mobilizing the entire population, especially the elderly and children, to have vaccination in the past two years; (2) the insufficient quarantine capacity of Hong Kong which has relied mainly on the quarantine facilities at Penny Bay; (3) the inadequacy in preventing some externally infected cases from infiltrating Hong Kong; and, as mentioned before, (4) the lack of strong coordination and effective leadership of the public health officials and the Hospital Authority, whose implementation of testing and quarantine measures demonstrated considerable gaps that have to be plugged urgently. All these problems have surfaced in the last two weeks, leading to some public dissatisfaction and disappointment. Fortunately, the central, provincial and local authorities in Beijing, Guangdong and Shenzhen respectively have been extending their helping hands to Hong Kong.
In the coming month, Hong Kong would very likely follow Macau’s example of implementing the testing of the entire population. It has been reported that the testing efforts would require each citizen to undergo three tests, that at least 200 centers would be opened every day to test a large number of residents on a daily basis, and that residents who refuse to undergo testing would be penalized. Details are being finalized, but this will be an unprecedented mobilization of all Hong Kong residents to undergo the testing of Covid-19 and its variants in March 2022.
In conclusion, the war against Omicron has begun in the HKSAR. Although there are serious implementation gaps in the testing ability, quarantine measures and hospitalization of Omicron-infected patients in Hong Kong, the outlook remains cautiously optimistic mainly because of the staunch and combined support of the central government in Beijing together with the full mobilization of the Guangdong and Shenzhen authorities. The society of Hong Kong must be cooperative with the HKSAR authorities in the coming months so that the war against Omicron will be victorious.