The bill to taxpayers for Hong Kong’s mass coronavirus screening is HK$530 million, although the total cost of the controversial programme will remain unknown until the mainland Chinese partners involved disclose how much they spent.
The government revealed the price tag, equivalent to US$68.3 million, a day after the two-week voluntary testing came to a close on Monday, having checked less than a quarter of the city’s 7.5 million people.
Aside from the expenditure, some health experts had questioned whether the drive would prove an effective tool in containing the spread of Covid-19. The effort uncovered 42 infections, or two per 100,000 people.
But Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the value of the operation could not be judged simply by the number of cases discovered. Rather the process had taken a snapshot of the extent of Covid-19 in the community and the data would help the government make better informed decisions about its pandemic response going forward.
“The [outcome] is difficult to be assessed by the expenditure,” Lam said. “If we managed to find thousands of cases, does it mean this scheme is successful?”
Lam argued the results could indicate the spread of the virus during the third wave, which began in early July, might not be as severe as the public feared.
“We could then further relax social-distancing measures or discuss travel arrangements with different governments including the mainland and Macau,” she said. “The benefits brought [by the scheme] are far more than a few hundreds of millions dollars.”
The city recorded zero local infections on Tuesday, a first in more than two months, and four imported ones, taking the total number of cases to 4,975, with 102 deaths.
The ambitious undertaking required establishing 141 centres across the city, staffed by more than 6,000 Hong Kong medical professionals and students. The results were processed by laboratories managed by four companies with mainland ties, including Sunrise Diagnostic Centre, which has erected a temporary facility at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park in Sai Ying Pun.
Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said the central government covered the cost of that laboratory and its technicians, while 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s outlay, about HK$370 million, paid the salaries for health care and supporting staff at the testing centres.
The rest was spent on recruitment, technical support, security and logistics, as well as protective gear and other “relevant resources”, among other items, according to Nip.
But authorities refused to reveal the cost to the mainland side, with Lam saying: “It is more appropriate for the central government or commissioned organisations to reveal [how much they have spent].”
Hong Kong third wave
Tracking the spread of local Covid-19 cases
The Post has reached out to Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong and Sunrise Diagnostic Centre on the amount spent by the mainland side.
The 42 infections identified through the scheme comprised 32 new cases, five people who were already on the radar of health authorities as close contacts of previously known patients, and five who had close contacts with cases detected by the mass screening. Thirteen cases were asymptomatic, while 20 were untraced. Health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the 42 cases translated into a positive rate of two infections among every 100,000 people.
Several health experts had previously cast doubt over whether mass screening could help cut transmission chains in the community, noting infected residents would be moving around in public for at least three days before learning of their results.
Professor Keiji Fukuda, head of the school of public health at the University of Hong Kong, said it was difficult to apply cost effectiveness as a metric to evaluate one-off actions, such as community testing, for situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
“If the government is able to finance the operation and the information is useful, then the cost can be seen as reasonable,” said Fukuda, who advises the government on its pandemic response. “It is possible that the testing results would have found a large number of infections that would have led to a change in strategy.”
While no government was obliged to reveal the cost of a specific undertaking, disclosure “can contribute to a greater sense of transparency, which is an essential component of trust”, he said.
The government will continue to offer free testing for people with minor symptoms at outpatient clinics, with the number to rise from 22 to 30 this week and expand to 40 by the end of the month, taking the daily quota of testing from 2,400 to about 4,000.
High-risk groups, such as employees at elderly care homes and hotels, will continue to be monitored for any sign of localised outbreaks, according to Chan. The government would review its data and begin drafting its pandemic response strategy for the next wave, she said.
Lam did not rule out the possibility that mandatory testing would be imposed on areas or groups hit by several cases.
She thanked central government officials for attaching great importance to the scheme and deploying 570 medical staff from the mainland to ramp up the city’s testing capacity.
“They have worked very diligently around the clock in the labs in the past two weeks, and now completed their mission,” she said. “This is touching.”
Separately, she revealed three blocks at Chun Yeung Estate, which currently provided more than 1,500 quarantine units, could cease operation by the end of the month and be returned for residential use in late January.