Hong Kong Medical Workers Strike in Bid to Shut China Border

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(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong medical professionals began a five-day strike Monday after the government refused their demand to shut all entry points from China amid a deadly virus outbreak on the mainland.

More than a thousand medical workers had signed up to strike as of Monday morning, Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, told reporters. Talks between the union and the Hospital Authority failed after the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam decided not to attend negotiations on Sunday, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, citing Yu.

Hong Kong Medical Workers Strike in Bid to Shut China Border

Deacons Yeung, the Hospital Authority’s Director of Cluster Services, said Monday that emergency services remained normal and authorities had activated a “major incident control center” to monitor the situation, according to RTHK. The impact on emergency services appeared limited on Monday.

The authority warned earlier that about half of all pre-booked operations at public hospitals would have to be postponed if the strike went ahead, RTHK said, citing official Ian Cheung.

About 99% of the 3,000 union members who voted Saturday backed the strike. More than 9,000 members have pledged to take part in the action, which will initially see non-emergency services suspended and then only limited emergency needs provided.

Hong Kong authorities have resisted pressure from some groups to shut all its borders with China, where the deadly outbreak has killed more than 300 people and infected more than 14,000 others. Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of the new strain of coronavirus. The government has extended school holidays and suspended residents of China’s Hubei province, where the outbreak is centered, from entering the city.

Measures already announced by the government “are doomed to fail when the government is adamant in refusing to address the crux of the problem,” the union said on Saturday. “As country after country begins to announce the banning of foreigners’ entry from China, the Hong Kong government chooses to keep its doors wide open.”

Further Tightening

A complete closing of the border sought by the workers is “not the right answer” and is not in line with World Health Organization guidelines, Lam said at a briefing on Friday. Still, hours after Hong Kong medical workers voted over the weekend, the government appeared to be considering more controls on travel from the mainland.

“The government is examining the infection continuously and will explore further tightening of the management of control points,” a spokesman said. The government appealed to workers “to reconsider their decision” and keep providing services, praising them for “standing fast at their posts.”

The union, established late last year, said the decision to strike “is not an easy one.” It said Lam’s refusal to attend talks on Sunday meant they had already broken down, according to RTHK.

Separately, Hong Kong Executive Council member Lam Ching-choi said that residents should avoid traveling to the mainland or risk having difficulties returning to the city, RTHK reported Sunday. Possible measures include shortened opening times for ports, transportation limitations and introducing laws to curb cross-border traffic, the report cited him as saying.

Restrictions on travel to and from China have widened as rising fears of the Wuhan coronavirus prompted countries to bar flights, ignoring guidance from the WHO. The U.S., Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and New Zealand are among countries restricting entry to non-citizens traveling from China.

Vietnam halted air travel to China, Italy banned incoming flights, and Qatar Airways became the first Middle East carrier to suspend flights to China. Airlines in Australia and the Philippines also announced similar plans on Saturday.

Efforts to fend off an outbreak of the novel coronavirus are posing a challenge to Hong Kong’s authorities, notably a citywide shortage of surgical masks that has raised concerns about the government’s preparedness to handle such a health crisis.

The union also said its members have flagged dangerous situations that have occurred due to a large number of suspected cases, including lack of personal protective equipment and designated quarters for staff handling isolated patients.

The fast-spreading virus has reminded many in Hong Kong of the SARS virus in 2003 that originated on the mainland and killed almost 300 people in the financial hub.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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