Top diplomats based in Hong Kong received a special appeal from city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to join the recently concluded free mass testing scheme for Covid-19, the Post has learned, in a move seen as wanting to ensure full support for Beijing.
The invitation to the consuls general was another testament to the administration’s all-out effort to ensure the success of the central government-backed programme which cost taxpayers HK$530 million (US$67.9 million).
The chief executive sought the backing of all top envoys in a letter on August 25, a week before the scheme started.
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“This enhanced public health measure will give us a more solid basis to resume economic and social activities,” Lam wrote. “I urge you to take part in the programme and encourage your family members, staff and colleagues to do so.”
In a letter to consuls on August 31, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung also sought support for the scheme.
“I hope that you will join the programme and encourage your family, colleagues and friends to do so,” he wrote. “I cannot emphasise enough the importance for us to stand united and continue to fight the virus and make Hong Kong a safer place for all.”
At least two of 63 consuls general based in Hong Kong – those from Singapore and Italy – took the test before the two-week scheme ended on Monday.
A diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Hong Kong government had spared no effort in promoting the programme.
“I think they [the government] tried to rally anyone from all walks of life so as to show it was a big success across the board,” the diplomat said.
But political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Lam had done “too much” by appealing to the envoys.
“Some in Hong Kong were concerned about the risks of personal and DNA data being transferred to the mainland authorities. It’s politically unwise for Lam to seek foreign diplomats’ support for the testing programme given its sensitivity,” he said.
The city launched the testing scheme on September 1 in the hope of tracking down invisible transmission chains amid a fierce but dwindling third wave of coronavirus infections.
The test was free for the city’s 7.5 million people, including non-permanent residents such as consuls and consular corps.
Italian Consul General Clemente Contestabile took the test. “He was tested on September 2 at the Convention and Exhibition Centre and found the process smooth and efficient,” a spokesman said.
Singaporean Consul General Foo Teow Lee and some staff at the consulate also took part, according to a spokesman. Alexandre Giorgini, the French consul general, had encouraged his staff to take the test on a voluntary basis in a written message dated September 1, a spokesman said.
British consulate staff were also told about the testing scheme, according to a spokesman, while the US consulate said it could not comment on the issue due to US privacy laws related to medical information.
A total of 1.78 million people were tested under the programme, accounting for a quarter of the city’s population, and at least 42 Covid-19 infections were found, or two per 100,000 people.
The bill to taxpayers reached HK$530 million, although the total cost of the controversial programme would remain unknown until the mainland partners involved revealed how much they spent.
While Carrie Lam called the mass testing a success, some health experts had questioned whether the screening would prove an effective tool in containing the spread of Covid-19.
A spokesman for the Chief Executive’s Office said Lam had been writing to the consular community every month to update them on the epidemic situation in Hong Kong and the government’s measures.
“As in the case of the general public, the chief executive encouraged the consular community to participate in the universal community testing programme because it could help identify any possible infected cases in the community and give the government a more solid basis to resume economic and social activities,” the spokesman said.
“Participation in the programme was free of charge and was voluntary. We do not have information on how many among the consular community have participated.”
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