But there were few takers.
By 4 p.m. on Tuesday, eight hours after the program began, 82,000 people had come forward — slightly over 1 percent of the population and far below the daily average required to reach the government’s target of 5 million. Most testing centers were quiet; health workers in protective gear and face shields sat around idle.
Although it was just the first day of the campaign, the outcome highlighted the yawning trust deficit between Hong Kong leaders and residents, rather than showcasing common purpose after a year of political upheaval.
Against the backdrop of Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory and a sharp fall in local infections, some residents came to regard the free testing program as a government effort to collect their DNA, a charge the government denies. “We will dispel worries, we will explain the rationale,” Patrick Nip, Hong Kong’s civil service chief, said Tuesday.
The campaign also has pitted Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, against public health experts and medical workers, potentially complicating the fight against the pandemic in the longer term.
“I’m postulating that in the most optimistic case, perhaps a million people will turn up, but if I say that, I will be announced as unpatriotic,” said Gabriel Choi Kin, head of the Hong Kong Medical Association. “Ultimately, this will be a display of whether citizens trust the government.”
Lam announced the initiative in August as Hong Kong was battling a resurgence in coronavirus infections, blamed largely on government exemptions that allowed more than 250,000 people to enter the city without a coronavirus test or mandatory quarantine. The mass testing initiative is only for people who are not showing symptoms; the government says 650,000 have registered.
In an open letter urging Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents to get tested, Lam heaped praise on the Chinese Communist Party, writing about the “great care” shown by the central government toward Hong Kong in assisting with the testing campaign. The help offered by Yu Dewen, a mainland official overseeing a testing support team, was a “simple yet powerful statement” that reflected Beijing’s confidence in the Hong Kong government and its people, Lam said.
She added that those suspicious of the program were trying to “damage the relationship” between Hong Kong and Beijing and “should be ashamed of themselves.”
Critics of mass testing include top epidemiologists at the University of Hong Kong, known for world-leading research into coronaviruses.
Ben Cowling, who heads the epidemiology division at the university’s school of public health, said mass testing is a “scattergun approach” with little guarantee of finding silent transmitters in the community. Ho Pak Leung at HKU’s department of microbiology said in a radio interview last week that he had doubts about the plan’s effectiveness from a scientific standpoint and said he would not participate.
“There are likely only a small number of asymptomatic carriers remaining in the community,” Ho said. “Even with preventive measures, one careless move could increase the risk of infection.”
Lam dismissed these experts as “politically motivated” and “anti-China.”
But experts outside Hong Kong, including in Britain, Singapore and Australia, have also cast doubts on mass testing as a strategy, citing the inevitability of false positive and false negative results. Adding to the skepticism is the very low number of new infections in Hong Kong, which recorded just nine cases on Monday.
“If you are testing random people on the street, with no history of disease, you are going to get false positives,” said Dale Fisher, a senior infectious-disease expert at the National University of Singapore’s school of medicine. “I’m not a fan of massive, indiscriminate testing over whole cities and countries. I’d much rather do everything else and have dead-end cases through social restrictions.”
In the context of the dramatic erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms over the past year, the tests have been viewed by many as a way for officials to curry favor with Beijing. Although the swab-taking is done by local doctors and nurses, the involvement of a support team from mainland China has raised concerns, given the Chinese government’s documented use of health databases and DNA collection to aid its mass surveillance of citizens.
In addition, Hong Kong officials recently cited fears of coronavirus transmission as the reason for postponing legislative elections — originally scheduled for this week — until September next year.
Still, some took the opportunity to get tested, making their appointments through an online booking system. Authorities credited the booking system for the lack of lines at the centers.
Lesean Lv, a 25-year-old writer from mainland China, said the process took about 20 minutes — 10 to wait for her turn and another 10 to get tested. She added that mass testing could “win back the people’s trust” after the government reacted “too passively” over the past few months.
Mario Xie, a 26-year-old trader at a Chinese state-linked company, said his boss had ordered him to join the exercise.
“I was worried about the risk of testing at a place jam-packed with people, but it looks like everyone respected social distancing measures, so it is acceptable,” Xie said.
But prominent activists like Joshua Wong and a pro-democracy union of medical workers called on Hong Kongers to boycott the campaign, saying it endangered public safety.
By Tuesday afternoon, any takeup of the testing appeared to have faded. Lines that had formed earlier at some collection centers had disappeared, even in downtown Hong Kong where sample collection sites were desolate. Staff stared curiously through face visors and glass doors at the empty street.
Outside City Hall, one of the collection sites, a line of metal barriers arced around the building, enclosing signs pointing toward the testing center, in anticipation of a multitude that had failed to materialize.
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.