Hong Kong is on the verge of a “large scale” COVID-19 outbreak that could overwhelm hospitals, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) said yesterday, as authorities implemented their toughest social distancing measures yet in a new blow for the economy.
From yesterday, all residents in the territory of 7.5 million must wear masks when they leave their homes, while restaurants can only serve takeaway meals.
No more than two people from different households can gather in public, with fines of up to HK$5,000 (US$645) for those who breach the new emergency rules.
The latest measures pile fresh misery on Hong Kong, which was mired in recession before the pandemic began, due to US-China trade tensions and political unrest last year.
Figures released yesterday showed that the territory’s economy shrank by 9.0 percent annually in the second quarter — the fourth contraction in a row.
As the pandemic took hold in the first quarter, Hong Kong’s economy shrank 9.1 percent annually, the worst fall on record.
The new social distancing rules are a bid to reverse a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases that has upended the territory’s otherwise enviable battle against the disease.
More than 1,000 infections have been confirmed since early this month — more than 40 percent of the total since the virus first hit the territory.
New daily infections have been above 100 for the past eight days.
Although Hong Kong still has relatively few cases, all of those who test positive are being treated in isolation wards, which are fast filling up.
“We are on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak, which may lead to a collapse of our hospital system and cost lives, especially of the elderly,” Lam said in a statement released to coincide with the new measures. “In order to protect our loved ones, our healthcare staff and Hong Kong, I appeal to you to follow strictly the social distancing measures and stay at home as far as possible.”
Health officials have been scrambling to uncover the source of the latest outbreak.
Some have blamed exemptions from the usual 14-day quarantine that the government granted to “essential personnel,” including cross-boundary truckers, air and sea crews, and some manufacturing executives.
The government has since tightened restrictions for some of those groups.
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