Customers wearing masks shop in front of partially empty shelves at a supermarket during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hong Kong, China February 28, 2022.
Customers wearing masks shop in front of partially empty shelves at a supermarket during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hong Kong, China February 28, 2022. Reuters / TYRONE SIU

Hong Kong residents braced for a city-wide lockdown, emptying supermarkets and pharmacies on Tuesday, even as leader Carrie Lam called for calm and appealed for the public not to worry over a compulsory mass COVID-19 testing plan.

Mass testing for the city's 7.4 million residents is set to take place over nine days starting in the second half of March, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported, citing an unidentified source.

The news sparked concerns many people will be forced to isolate and families with members testing positive would be separated.

Officials are planning to test people three times over nine days, with the government still deliberating whether a lockdown would be done on a district basis or citywide, the SCMP said.

Exemptions would be made for those who buy food, seek medical treatment and maintain societal operations. Hong Kong's stock market would continue to operate, Sing Tao newspaper reported, citing unidentified sources.

Lam had previously said she was not considering a city-wide lockdown.

On Tuesday, she appealed to the public "not to fall prey to rumours to avoid unnecessary fears being stirred", saying the supply of food and goods remaining normal.

"There is no need for members of the public to worry, they should stay vigilant and pay attention to the information disseminated by the government so as to avoid being misled by rumours," Lam said in a statement.

Despite her comments, dozens of people queued to enter pharmacies and banks across the city, while many scoured empty shelves in grocery stores to stock up on whatever essentials they could.

Streets and shopping malls in the heart of the city's Central financial district were eerily quiet in what would typically be a busy lunchtime period.

The Chinese ruled city has seen coronavirus infections surge some 34 times to over 34,000 on Monday from just over 100 at the start of February. Deaths are also climbing, with facilities for storing dead bodies at hospitals and public mortuaries at maximum capacity.

Hong Kong continues to stick to a COVID policy of "dynamic zero", the same as mainland China, which seeks to curb all outbreaks at any cost. The Chinese ruled territory has implemented its most draconian measures since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

The rules have exacerbated separation fears among many families, with many fleeing ahead of the mass testing scheme and the build out of tens of thousands of isolation centres.

The former British colony has reported over 205,000 coronavirus infections and 744 deaths in total, however over 400 deaths have been in the past week, with the majority being unvaccinated residents.

Lam, who inspected a mainland Chinese built isolation centre on Monday, said the team had raced against the clock to "create a miracle" in the city's construction industry.

The Tsing Yi facility, located in the northwest of the city, would provide around 3,900 rooms for infected people with mild or no symptoms and others who need to isolate, she said.