Hong Kong announced stringent new coronavirus restrictions and record new infections on Tuesday, while a shortage of vegetables added to the misery as truck drivers who tested positive for COVID-19 were unable to bring them from mainland China.
The Asian financial hub reported a record 625 coronavirus cases on Tuesday, with cases likely to continue rising rapidly, authorities said. There were 2,600 infections over the past two weeks compared with just two in December.
Responding to the worrying trend, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie lam said public gatherings would be limited to two people from four currently, while churches and hair salons would close from Thursday, joining a slew of venues already closed.
Lam also announced a ban on private gatherings of more than two families, though it was unclear how authorities would enforce it.
“The time has come for Hong Kong to take some tough measures,” Lam told a news briefing.
“We are adopting stringent measures to protect Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong’s supply of vegetables on Tuesday was around one-third of Monday’s after several cross border truck drivers, who bring in produce from mainland China, tested positive, the government said.
Shelves stocking vegetables were bare across supermarkets in the city while crowds surged into fresh markets to snap up the limited produce available. Other food remained available.
At a market in the city’s downtown Wan Chai district, a staff member from Qiandama vegetable store, shouted to crowds not to enter.
“No more veggies inside…It’s like the battlefield,” she said as people tried to charge in.
Some vegetable and fruit stalls selling mainland Chinese produce were shuttered while others were selling produce at double their usual prices.
For now, Lam said, the best option was to adhere to the “dynamic zero” strategy employed by mainland China to suppress all coronavirus outbreaks as soon as possible.
The official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, had encouraged Hong Kong to follow China’s approach to containing the virus in an editorial on Monday.
“When vaccination rates increase, when Omicron disappears and when other things happen, we will revisit our strategy,” Lam said.
Hong Kong’s coronavirus policies have turned the Asian travel and business hub into one of the world’s most isolated major cities.
The economic and psychological toll from the hardline approach are rapidly rising, with measures becoming more draconian than those first implemented at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Flights are down by around 90%, schools, playgrounds, gyms as well as most other venues are shut. Restaurants close at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT), while most people, including the majority of civil servants, are working from home.
All the measures are being extended to Feb. 24, when the city’s vaccine pass will also take effect. People will need to be vaccinated to enter shopping malls, supermarkets and other venues, Lam said.
Government quarantine facilities are also nearing their maximum as authorities struggle to keep up with their rigid contact tracing scheme.
Many health experts have said the current strategy of shutting itself off as the rest of the world shifts to living with coronavirus, is unsustainable.
Doctors say mental health is suffering, particularly in families where people are earning less, or children cannot go to school due to the restrictions.
Hunting the shops for vegetables, one 60 year old man, who gave his surname as Ngai, said the authorities should help supply more food as prices had surged.
“The government doesn’t do anything, so the vegetable sellers are upping the price,” he said. “It’s really hard to be a Hong Konger.”