October 1, 2020

Hong Kong hospital strike kicks off as top doctor backs mainland China border closure calls amid coronavirus fears

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By Chris Lau From SCMP

Members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance sign up people to the strike near Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Yau Ma Tei. Photo: Winson Wong
  • Union says more than 2,400 doctors, nurses and medical assistants have signed up for the strike, the first wave of which involved non-essential staff
  • Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong urges the workers to put patients first

More than 2,400 Hong Kong public hospital workers staged a strike on Monday morning as a top microbiologist agreed with their central demand that the government close the border with mainland China to fend off the deadly coronavirus.

“Closing the border entirely is the only effective way to prevent the spread of the virus,” Dr Ho Pak-leung, of the University of Hong Kong, told a radio programme.

Long queues formed at various hospitals as doctors, nurses and medical assistants – many wearing white ribbons – registered for the industrial action, aimed primarily at forcing the border shutdown.

More than 3,000 non-essential hospital workers were expected to take part in the strike’s first wave, a day after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor refused to meet the union behind the action, the 18,000-strong Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which emerged in December during anti-government protests.

As of midday, more than 2,400 workers had signed up for the strike, the union said. The alliance has threatened to step up its action, with more than 6,000 essential personnel joining the strike on Tuesday if the government does not respond by 6pm.

Health authorities in mainland China have said more than 17,000 people there have been infected by the contagion, which began in Wuhan, Hubei province, and more than 360 have died.

In Hong Kong, where there were 15 confirmed cases, the government had closed six of its 15 border checkpoints, and refused entry to travellers coming from Wuhan. But it had resisted calls that the closure should cover everyone coming from China and be extended to all border checkpoints.

In a letter to public hospital workers, former Hospital Authority chairman Anthony Wu Ting-yuk urged them to set aside their grievances and go to work.

“Our primary duty us to care for patients. Everyone can hold a different political view and different thoughts, as well as different views on the government’s way of combating the pandemic,” said Wu, a standing committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top advisory body.

“But I sincerely hope, amid choppy waters and at a critical moment, we can all put aside our conflicts … and do our share for patients who need help.”

He said he was sorry for not having been able to secure more resources to ease the workers’ burdens during his 10 years in office from 2003, saying he sympathised with them.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong played down the situation on Monday, suggesting that the government and the striking workers shared the same goal, which was to reduce the human flow between Hong Kong and affected zones.

Coronavirus: what we know so far about the outbreak spreading in China and abroad

He said the differences lay in the means, scale, and pace, adding that closing the border entirely would make it impossible for Hongkongers – who make up 90 per cent of border crossers – to return to the city. He urged the medical workers to put patients first.

Shortly after 9am, staff began to show up in long queues outside hospitals such as Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei and Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam, registering to show the extent of participation.

Asked if it was appropriate to disregard their duties to patients, some apologised for the inconvenience caused, but insisted they were going on strike for the greater good of curtailing infections.

Others accused the city’s leader of politicising the matter, rejecting Lam’s suggestion that closing the border would be discriminatory. Lam cited the World Health Organisation (WHO) in her argument, though countries such as Singapore, the United States and Australia have already barred travellers who have recently been in China from entering their territory.

Anaesthesia assistant Leung Kwan-lai, 43, who was in the queue outside Queen Elizabeth Hospital, said the group had never advocated barring only mainlanders. He said the measure was meant to target anyone coming from the mainland, regardless of nationality.

The virus cannot recognise who is mainland Chinese or a Hong Kong resident. As long as you are human you could be infectedDr Lam Ching-choi, executive councillor

“She was just blurring the focus,” said Leung, who had skipped work at Tung Wah Hospital in Sheung Wan.

Ho, the HKU microbiologist, said closing the border would not be discriminatory or go against the WHO’s 2005 International Health Regulations, a legal instrument which includes specific measures for ports, airports and ground crossings to limit the spread of diseases.

He added that anyone entering the city from the mainland carried the same risk of infection, whether they are a Chinese citizen, a Hong Kong resident or a foreign national.

“Unless that person has a very good reason and must absolutely return to Hong Kong, then they need to be quarantined,” he said. Ho said the government could consider quarantining such people in hotels far from residential areas. If there was not enough space, he added, they would have to be quarantined at home, with someone on guard.

Hospital Authority cluster services director Dr Deacons Yeung Tai-kong called on hospital staff not to go on strike, saying every employee was needed during the outbreak.

Though he agreed there was “a consensus among the medical profession that we need to lower the risk to Hong Kong people by limiting travellers”, he said he hoped the authority could hold more talks with the union to avoid any escalation.

Asked if it was irresponsible to abandon patients, Leung, the anaesthesia assistant, said it was a dilemma. “Of course it is our duty to help patients,” he acknowledged. “But if we fell sick too, who would be there to help the patients?”

Lo, a 29-year-old operation room assistant who works at Caritas Medical Centre in Cheung Sha Wan, was also at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She said she was “greatly sorry” about the strike.

Some would inevitably have their operations delayed, she admitted. But she pledged to put in more effort to deal with their cases once she returned to work.

At Queen Mary Hospital, renowned liver expert Dr Lai Ching-lung made an appearance to show support for the strikers, but said he would not take part because of his duty of care to patients. He said he understood their demands and called on the government to close the border before things get worse.

Executive councillor Dr Lam Ching-choi urged Hong Kong residents not to travel to the mainland and suggested further measures to close the border might be taken, which might affect Hong Kong residents as well, though he did not elaborate.

“The virus cannot recognise who is mainland Chinese or a Hong Kong resident. As long as you are human you could be infected,” Lam said, stressing that travel limits should not target one specific group.

Additional reporting by Zoe Low

For more on this story go to; https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3048705/hong-kong-hospital-strike-kicks-top-doctor-backs-mainland?utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailchimp&utm_campaign=enlz-gme_hk_protests&utm_content=20200203&MCUID=8d9bd0120f&MCCampaignID=9636f3391b&MCAccountID=7b1e9e7f8075914aba9cff17f&tc=4

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