Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PAUL YEUNG
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PAUL YEUNG

Hong Kong — Hong Kong will extend social-distancing measures, despite objections from pro-democracy groups that a ban on large gatherings is being used to suppress protests. 

Food and health secretary Sophia Chan confirmed in a briefing on Tuesday afternoon that the city will extend restrictions, including a ban on gatherings of more than eight people, for another two weeks until June 4.

Earlier, CEO Carrie Lam said Hong Kong needs to “remain vigilant” after new coronavirus infections broke a 23-day streak without local cases. She denied that a desire to prevent gatherings, such as an annual June 4 vigil commemorating the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square activists, weighed on the decision.

“There’s no political consideration at all on certain anniversaries or political gatherings and so on,” Lam told reporters before a regular meeting of her Executive Council advisory panel. “Our only consideration is public safety and public-health concerns.

Measures extended past Thursday include the ban on more than eight people — though religious gatherings are exempted — while karaoke lounges and nightclubs will continue to remain shuttered. “There’s no need to relax any measures, but there’s no need to tighten any other measures,” Lam said, citing medical experts advising the government.

The extension comes after Hong Kong, which avoided the full lockdowns of other big cities, relaxed some social-distancing measures, including earlier easing a ban on more than four people. The city also allowed civil servants to return to their offices after working from home.

Even though the city has seen few local cases, Hong Kong has continued to keep social-distancing measures in place at a time when the former British colony is seeing a fresh burst of anti-government demonstrations. Some protesters have expressed fears that Lam’s administration could continue imposing restrictions to suppress pro-democracy rallies and could prevent the annual June 4 vigil in Victoria Park, which usually attracts tens of thousands of people.

Lam said authorities haven’t been able to trace the source of some recent infections and that this is likely a sign there is some silent, or asymptomatic, transmission of the virus. However, she said it is probably impractical to wait a full 28 days without local transmission before deciding whether to relax measures.

The city will increase its testing capacity to 7,000 tests a day — up from about 4,500 now, Lam said, adding that the government is still planning to follow through on its plans of a phased reopening of schools.