China's Xi orders Hong Kong to suppress outbreak 'above everything else'

China's President Xi Jinping is pictured on a big screen during an evening news program, showing Xi's keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) at a mall in Beijing on November 30, 2021.

Hong Kong, China | Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called for Hong Kong to take "all necessary measures" to control an Omicron-fuelled Covid-19 outbreak, Beijing-affiliated newspapers in the city said Wednesday, a day after leader Carrie Lam ruled out a China-style hard lockdown.

Hong Kong is currently in the throes of its worst-ever coronavirus outbreak, registering over a thousand confirmed cases a day as hospitals reach their breaking point.

Lam this week insisted a hard "wholesale" lockdown -- which the mainland has imposed on various cities in order to stamp out cases -- will not be imposed on Hong Kongers. 

By Wednesday, local newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po -- which answer to Beijing's office in the city -- reported Xi had called on authorities to "implement every necessary measure to ensure the protection" of public health. 

Hong Kong needs "to prioritise stabilising and controlling the Covid situation above everything else", the papers reported China's leader said. 

Following the publication of Xi's remarks, Lam expressed "gratitude" for his concern. 

"The government will, in accordance with the important instruction of President Xi Jinping, assume the main responsibility to... adopt all necessary measures to safeguard the lives and health of Hong Kong people," she said in a press release Wednesday.

Authoritarian China remains one of the few places in the world sticking to a "zero-Covid" policy -- stamping out any sign of an outbreak with weeks-long lockdowns of entire cities, widespread contact-tracing and testing.

But it is unclear whether Hong Kong, one of the world's most densely-packed cities, could ever make it back to zero-Covid even with a full lockdown, given the sheer number of Omicron infections it now faces.

The emergence of the extremely contagious Omicron variant sent authorities scrambling in 2022 -- upping social distancing measures, shuttering schools and night-time restaurant dining, and even culling hamsters when some rodents tested positive for the virus.

Lam's administration had already sought aid from Chinese officials -- specifically with testing capacities and the need for the brisk construction of more quarantine facilities -- during a weekend meeting.

Recent scenes in the city resembled the early phase of the pandemic, with shoppers clearing out supermarket shelves to stock up on food and essentials.

This week hospitals buckled under the strain of rising infections, with at least two facilities placing patients in beds in the open air -- many of them elderly huddled under multiple layers of blankets. 

Hong Kong on Wednesday reported 4,280 confirmed cases, a new record.

© Agence France-Presse

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