HONG KONG- Hong Kong reported a record 8,674 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, as authorities announced the toughest social restrictions since the pandemic began to combat the surge, and as the city prepares for compulsory testing of residents.

From Thursday residents will have to show their vaccine record to access venues including supermarkets, malls and restaurants, wear masks for all outdoor exercise, and they will not be allowed to remove masks to eat or drink on public transport.

Hong Kong is pursuing a "dynamic zero COVID" strategy similar to mainland China, aiming to eradicate any outbreaks at all costs instead of trying to live with the virus. The government said on Wednesday it wanted to "reduce the flow of people as much as possible."

Health authorities reported 24 deaths, compared with Tuesday's 32 deaths and 6,211 new cases.

With the city's testing, treatment and isolation capacity already stretched to the maximum, University of Hong Kong researchers predicted new infections could peak at 180,000 a day next month. 

"We are really at the limit," Lau Ka-hin, chief manager for quality and standards of the Hospital Authority, an oversight department, told reporters.

Earlier on Wednesday, Finance Secretary Paul Chan unveiled tax breaks, handouts and subsidies to small businesses and residents, in a 2022/23 budget that aimed to mitigate the impact of curbs that will last at least until April 20.

With bars, gyms and other businesses already closed and shopping malls deserted while many residents work from home, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that schools would break early for summer and resume the new year in August.

Parents reacted with dismay, saying they were concerned about their children's education and mental health. 

Some school campuses could be used for testing and isolation as mandatory checks for infections begin next month. Residents would need to test three times, with the city of 7.4 million able to test about one million people a day, Lam said. Since 2020, Hong Kong has registered more than 70,000 COVID-19 infections and more than 350 deaths.

The new restrictions add to a slew of already stringent measures including a ban on gatherings of more than two people and the closure of dining in restaurants past 6.p.m. local time.

Many residents are feeling fatigued at the measures which are the most draconian since the pandemic over two years ago. Separately the city's Security Secretary Chris Tang would isolate at home for two weeks after his wife and domestic helper tested positive for the virus. Hundreds of civil servants and health authorities have been infected in recent weeks.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia and Farah Master; editing by John Stonestreet and Alexandra Hudson) ((farah.master@thomsonreuters.com; +852 3462 7709;))