- Rumours circulating online claim government was told by Beijing to open city’s hospitals to mainland patients
- Claims stem from health officials confirming patients needing to be isolated would have fees waived
Hong Kong's leader has said "fake news" surrounding the city's response to the coronavirus would hamper the government's efforts to control the spread of the disease.
On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said a "large amount" of misinformation regarding her administration's efforts against the virus had been spread online.
"This will seriously affect our work in preventing and controlling the epidemic, and will also cause unnecessary panic," Lam said. "At the end it will be Hong Kong residents who suffer."
Lam pointed to an online post that claimed she had agreed to "make use of Hong Kong's medical system" to help China tackle the epidemic on Beijing's orders.
The online post, which circulated on various forums on Monday, claimed the government had implemented a policy waiving medical fees for "mainland pneumonia patients" being treated in Hong Kong, at the behest of the central government.
"The content is absurd," Lam said, adding it was impossible for Hong Kong's medical system to be used that way.
The rumour stemmed from the Department of Health's confirmation that all patients " locals and non-locals " would have their fees waived if they required isolation treatment for the coronavirus.
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The policy is aimed at encouraging patients with an infectious disease to be treated, so to reduce the risk to community outbreaks, and has been in place since before the current epidemic.
The Hospital Authority added on Tuesday that such arrangement had been implemented for other major infectious diseases in the past, such as the outbreak of human swine flu in 2009.
Under normal circumstances, non-local patients have to pay more to use public hospitals.
But online, the announcement was quickly interpreted as encouraging mainland patients to seek treatment in Hong Kong, raising fears of overcrowding in the city's public hospitals.
Despite issuing a clarification on Tuesday, Lam said the latest arrangement would be scrapped to avoid attracting patients to Hong Kong and adding to the workload of public hospitals.
The Hospital Authority said on Tuesday evening that the latest pricing arrangement for non-eligible people would only apply on cases related to the novel coronavirus. Effective on Wednesday, this arrangement would be applicable on both suspected and confirmed cases of the virus.
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Separately, the Education Bureau also reiterated on Tuesday that kindergartens, primary and secondary schools should resume classes on February 17.
The bureau said a hoax letter claiming to have been issued by them was circulating online, saying the date had been pushed back to February 27.
On Saturday, the government announced that Lunar New Year holiday for most schools would be extended by two weeks to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
Last week, rumours circulated that the government had stockpiled as many as 100 million surgical masks, a claim based on the information that prisoners in Hong Kong produce the item under the supervision of the Correctional Services Department.
The government clarified later that its logistics department was required to maintain a stockpile of 10 million masks for distribution to other departments.
Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of Chinese University's School of Journalism and Communication, said he had not seen a surge in fake news in Hong Kong related to the outbreak.
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"Many of the posts are interpretations on why the government appears to be reluctant in doing what people want," Lee said.
"I think most people who read the forum posts would not treat them as classified documents."
Lee attributed the rumours to the public's lack of trust with the government, which he said had grown out of the political crisis, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill last year.
"The feeling is that you are not leading the society against the disease, it feels like the society pushing you to work," Lee said.
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