Was a mass Covid-19 test a success for Hong Kong?

Hong Kong launched its first Universal Community Testing Programme (UCTP) on September 1, 2020.
It ran for a fortnight

By , , and Published September 28, 2020

After a third wave of the coronavirus blind sided Hong Kong, Beijing joined forces with the local government to identify carriers of the coronavirus by offering residents free tests. Did the results justify the time and resources?

The turnout for the testing programme

Covid-19 infections identified through UCTP

Grand total: 42
or two infections per 100,000 people

Hong Kong was gearing up for a fierce showdown over control of the city’s legislature when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor controversially postponed the September polls by one year, citing public health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Compounding the controversy, a week later, authorities announced a one-off, free mass testing programme in a bid to cut off silent chains of transmission in the city - one that would require large numbers of residents to queue to give samples, much as they would have done to vote. The move prompted the pro-democracy opposition to accuse the government of double standards, expressing scepticism that the public health crisis was the real reason the vote was postponed.

The testing process

The testing programme came two months into Hong Kong’s battle against a third wave of mostly locally transmitted coronavirus infections. The city saw more than 100 daily new cases for 12 days in a row, surpassing the previous daily record of 65 infections recorded in March during the city’s second wave, which was largely driven by imported cases.

The 32 infections identified by test date

September 1, 2020
September 1, 2020
September 1, 2020

The city’s leader insisted there was no political agenda behind the decision to delay the Legco vote — which had been hotly anticipated, particularly in opposition circles — maintaining that the infection risks inherent to a single-day poll were higher than those from the two-week programme. Nonetheless, the mass testing scheme, supported by mainland teams and lab facilities, was launched under a shadow of political controversies.

Critics of the programme have cast doubt on its effectiveness, saying the testing would not help the government control the pandemic if turnout was low, and without a full lockdown in place.

How many testing centres are there?

The spending

Note: All numbers are approximate figures

Staffing arrangement

Note: All numbers are approximate figures except the one from mainland China

They also raised concerns over biometric data privacy, although officials insisted that no personal information would be sent outside the city.

Prominent activists like Joshua Wong Chi-fung and the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, an opposition-leaning union of medical workers, called on the public to boycott the scheme, saying targeted testing was a better use of resources.

Lam dismissed the criticism as politically motivated, adding that all preliminary results from laboratories would be confirmed by the Centre for Health Protection to address fears over the accuracy of the tests.

Cases discovered by the UCTP

Almost a quarter of the city’s residents participated in the programme, with some debate lingering as to whether the figure was sufficiently large to represent the whole population. And while the scheme only uncovered 42 infections — at a cost to taxpayers of HK$530 million — it did significantly ramp up Hong Kong's testing capacity, which health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee said would help prepare the city for a potential fourth wave in the autumn and winter. It could also boost other countries’ confidence when it came to setting up travel bubbles with Hong Kong, officials have said.

People tested by district

Number registered District population# (in thousands) Kwun TongYuen LongSha TinEasternKwai TsingSham Shui PoTuen MunWong Tai SinYau Tsim MongSai KungKowloon CityNorthCentral & WesternWan ChaiTai PoTsuen WanSouthernIslands 200 0 400 600 173.8 688.5 150.6 645.0 148.9 688.1 136.0 545.6 125.9 502.4 120.9 416.5 105.3 495.1 104.7 416.1 99.0 329.9 92.5 472.5 83.7 419.9 77.8 314.1 76.9 240.5 71.1 178.4 70.3 306.8 67.2 311.8 47.6 264.6 31.1 186.5

Note: People were not required to register at testing centres in their residential district. District population as of 2019

Creative Director Darren Long

Source: Government figures

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