released November 14, 2020
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Residents wearing face masks wait in to take COVID-19 tests in Cheung Sha Wan, Hong Kong, Sept 3, 2020. [Photo by PARKER ZHENG/CHINA DAILY]
Hong Kong's civil service chief on Thursday said it was encouraging to see nearly 1.8 million Hong Kong residents participate in the city's two-week free and voluntary mass COVID-19 testing — a program that is assisting in preparations for the expected next round of the pandemic.
Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who oversaw the organization of the territorywide COVID-19 testing program, told China Daily that the money was well-spent as it enabled the government to get a more-accurate grasp of the pandemic by identifying asymptomatic virus carriers and thereby sever transmission chains.
The Universal Community Testing Programme, which ended on Monday, detected 42 confirmed infections, including 13 asymptomatic patients. About 6,000 local medical workers and around 600 medical experts sent by the central government from the Chinese mainland worked in the program.
Nip said he is pleased the program enhanced Hong Kong's testing capabilities. This is important as negative test results are essential in order for outbound travel and economic activities to resume.
"The policy objective of the UCTP was achieved," Nip told China Daily in an exclusive interview. "Many residents wanted to have COVID-19 tests, but the fee charged by the private sector was so high and far beyond their ability to pay. So this testing program, which was free of charge, provided them the opportunity to get testing and made them feel comfortable after being tested."
He said he is satisfied that 93 percent of the residents who signed up online showed up for their scheduled tests, but many people walked in without using online registration, which was intended to shorten the lines at the testing centers.
"It is humane and people-oriented to admit residents without prior registration. There were people coming for tests without registration on the first day. As long as the testing centers could handle it, they would admit the walk-ins. In fact, many elderly do not know how to use the internet, and nobody helps elderly people who live alone. For the last three days, the number of walk-in participants accounted for 60 percent of the total people receiving the tests," he said.
As for the cost of the program, the central government will foot the bill for the mainland medical professionals and the laboratory fees. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government will pay about HK$500 million (US$64.5 million), which will cover the expense of setting up the test centers, the wages of the medical professionals, and the cost of medicine.
"As divided by the 1.783 million participants, the average cost is about HK$300 per head. This is far cheaper than that charged by the private sector. In fact, the private sector does not have the capability to conduct so many tests. After this testing program, the demand for COVID-19 tests is higher, but the fee charged by private labs will definitely go down," he said.
Nip disagrees with those who calculated the cost-effectiveness by dividing the HK$500 million cost by the number of confirmed patients that the testing program found. "It is illogical to calculate the cost-effectiveness this way because the testing program is not all about the confirmed patients but involving all participants," he said.
He added that the testing program is instrumental in enabling the government to tackle the third wave of COVID-19, to prepare for the next wave, and therefore the money was well-spent.
Confirmed patients of different age groups and occupations have been detected, yet some are asymptomatic, showing that the pandemic has spread deep into the local community as some of them were previously unidentified and were detected only because of the testing program.
The testing program has yielded positive social effects apart from the number of patients detected, Nip said. Society is actively engaged, with the dedicated participation of healthcare workers, civil servants, the public and private sectors to fight the virus together, he said.
Nip said he has noticed anti-government politicians and some healthcare workers had smeared the UCTP and created panic by badmouthing the program as useless and a means of virus transmission, and by falsely claiming that the testees' DNA would be sent to the mainland.
"The government is highly encouraged that 1.783 million people took the test," he said. "At first, some people poured cold water on the idea, saying it would be a failure if less than 1 million people participated. Some residents had worries after hearing rumors. But after the government quickly refuted the inaccurate news, people felt more assured and were very eager to take the tests, with many residents coming with their family members and children."