Thousands of people in Hong Kong have been ordered to stay in their homes in the city’s first coronavirus lockdown, as authorities battle an outbreak in one of its poorest and most densely packed districts.
The order bans about 10,000 people living inside multiple housing blocks within the neighbourhood of Jordan, on the Kowloon Peninsula, from leaving their apartments unless they can show a negative test.
Officials said they planned to test everyone inside the designated zone within 48 hours “in order to achieve the goal of zero cases in the district”.
“Residents will have to stay at their premises to avoid cross-infection until they get their test results,” the health minister, Sophia Chan, told reporters on Saturday.
Local media reported that anyone who had been to the restricted area for more than two hours in the past two weeks must also get tested by the end of Saturday.
The South China Morning Post said the measures covered about 150 housing blocks, with hundreds of police on standby to enforce the lockdown.
Hong Kong was one of the first places to be struck by the coronavirus outside of central China.
It has kept infections under 10,000 with 170 deaths by imposing effective but economically punishing social distancing measures.
Over the last two months the city has been hit by a fourth wave of infections with more than 4,300 cases recorded while authorities struggle to bring the daily numbers down.
Stubborn clusters have emerged in low-income neighbourhoods notorious for some of the world’s most cramped housing in the district of Yau Tsim Mong.
The average flat in Hong Kong is about 46 sq metres (500 sq feet).
But many squeeze themselves into even smaller, subdivided flats – cubicles that can be as tiny as 4.6 sq metres or even less, with shared bathrooms and showers inside ageing buildings. It is these kinds of buildings where clusters have been located in recent weeks, prompting the region’s first lockdown order.
In recent days health officials began carrying out mandatory testing in about 70 buildings in the area but the government then decided to test everyone.
The lockdown has created considerable confusion for residents. The impending restrictions were leaked to the city’s local media on Friday but there was no official statement from the government until Saturday morning, once the lockdown had come into force overnight.
Some media reported seeing residents leave the area ahead of the midnight deadline while others said locals were frustrated by the lack of clear information.
The area is also home to many ethnic minorities, mainly South Asian Hongkongers, a community that often faces discrimination and poverty.
Earlier in the week a senior health official sparked anger when he suggested ethnic minority residents might be spreading the virus more readily because “they like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together”.
Critics countered that poverty and a lack of affordable housing forcing people to live in cramped conditions were to blame for the virus spreading more easily in those districts – not race or culture.
The health official’s remarks also came as a video of predominantly white migrants dancing at a packed brunch on the more affluent Hong Kong Island sparked anger but no similar admonition from officials.