HONG KONG -- The government of Hong Kong is considering giving mandatory coronavirus tests to all residents, after Chinese President Xi Jinping told the financial hub to take "all necessary measures" to curb the soaring case count.
The compulsory testing would start in March and Hong Kong's entire population, which currently stands at 7.4 million, would be screened over a week, according to local media reports Thursday. There is also a proposal to test every resident three times.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Thursday afternoon that mandatory citywide testing "is a plan that we are currently considering."
But after welcoming a visiting delegation of mainland health experts, she said, "Hong Kong residents should cooperate, come out calmly and accept mandatory testing."
The number of positive cases hit an all-time high of 6,116 on Thursday. Cases are spreading rapidly among the elderly, many of whom are not vaccinated, weighing heavily on the health care system.
The surge is eroding Hong Kong's zero-COVID policy. By testing all residents, the city seeks to cut off sources of new infections, but some medical experts worry the move may be too late.
With hospitals overflowing with patients, the government on Thursday loosened its policy on discharging COVID patients in a bid to free up beds. Around 12,000 COVID-positive people are waiting for admission. Some public hospitals have set up beds outdoors to cope with the overwhelming demand.
The situation "has exceeded the government's capacity to respond," said Lam.
Hotel owners have offered 20,000 rooms for the government to use to isolate infected residents. New World Development said it would convert a hotel of 700 rooms into an isolation facility, while Sun Hung Kai Properties announced it could provide 1,000 rooms in two hotels.
Hong Kong has implemented stricter border controls than almost any other major global destination. But the territory has failed to prepare infrastructure to handle a big outbreak.
On Wednesday, pro-Beijing newspapers reported that Xi had taken the unusual step of telling Vice Premier Han Zheng, the most senior official overseeing Hong Kong affairs, to relay to Lam his concerns about the city's pandemic response.
"Hong Kong must assume principal responsibility, and stabilizing infections is the overriding mission," Xi was quoted as saying.
Many interpreted Xi's words as both a rebuke and a warning that if Hong Kong failed to control the outbreak soon, it would risk damaging the authority of the Communist Party leadership, which has held fast to a zero-COVID policy.
A Beijing-friendly newspaper meanwhile attacked the private Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute for publishing a poll showing public dissatisfaction with the government's coronavirus measures. It called for a national security investigation of the center.
The spread of infections could impact the March 27 election of Hong Kong's chief executive.
Lam has not stated whether she will run for another five-year term, although the nominating period will begin on Sunday. In practice, Xi's administration will have the last word on who will prevail in the election, and it is not clear if Lam will retain the full support of Beijing. Only members of a 1,500-member committee can vote in the election.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's delegate to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, suggested Thursday that the election could be postponed, citing the overarching need to focus on the coronavirus response.
Additional reporting by Pak Yiu.