Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam pledges S$1.7 billion in new relief measures to prop up weakened economy

In this photo taken on Jan 7, 2020, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a news conference at the Office of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AP

HONG KONG - Ahead of the city's annual Budget on Feb 26, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is still struggling to deal with the biggest political crisis to hit the territory, pledged to dole out HK$10 billion ($1.73 billion) worth of relief measures to ease the burden of residents.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday afternoon (Jan 14), the Hong Kong leader said the package comprising 10 measures is focused on helping the vulnerable and is expected to benefit more than a million people.

For example, two existing schemes that provide financial assistance to the elderly - old age living allowance and higher old age living allowance - will be merged into one and the subsidy will be raised to HK$3,585 a month. The criteria for the subsidy will be relaxed to allow tens of thousands more individuals to be eligible for the scheme - a move that takes up half of the HK$10 billion.

Currently, those aged over 65 can travel on public transport for HK$2 per trip. To make it more accessible, the age range will be adjusted to those aged 60 and over.

The government will contribute to the mandatory provident fund (MPF) savings of those who do not earn enough to do so on their own. The threshold now is set at HK$7,100 per month.

Mrs Lam also announced that the government will gradually increase the number of statutory holidays from 12 to 17 days, pending discussions with the business sector.

"If you look closely at the 10 measures, they will be rolled out at different times... Every proposed measure will require time for discussion before implementation," Mrs Lam said.

She said the proposals are a continuation of her policy address in October last year, adding that the government then had rejected some of the measures but are now open to the ideas.

"I'm sure you will be able to find our previous different positions on some of these measures, from expressing reservations to perhaps resisting proposals or aspirations from the political parties or members of the public," Mrs Lam said. "But we are having a sort of breakthrough in our thinking, that we should be listening more to the people."

The planned relief measures bring the total stimulus since June to HK$35 billion.

Hong Kong's economy, hit by a double whammy of the United States and China trade war, as well as unrest that have lasted seven months, sank into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter.

Earlier in the day, the embattled leader told reporters before her weekly Executive Council meeting that she is not aware of the findings of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which is expected earliest by month-end.

The police watchdog is reviewing the force's handling of anti-government protests on key dates, including June 9 and 12, July 1, Aug 1 and 31, which involved major confrontations in and around the legislature, a citywide strike and clashes at Prince Edward MTR station. The review also covers the attack on passengers and protesters by white-clad men at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21.

Mrs Lam's comments on the IPCC came after she was asked to confirm the council findings that are said to highlight several police shortcomings, including events on June 12, when the police first fired tear gas to disperse the massive crowd at the government headquarters in Admiralty.

It was reported by the local media that the IPCC had found that the commander did not communicate clearly that day.

Mrs Lam added that once the findings are complete, the report will be handed to her directly and she will start work on it.

On setting up an independent inquiry as demanded by protesters, she stressed that the IPCC is an independent body that looks into complaints against the police.

Critics, however, said they have no faith in the IPCC as it comprises many pro-government or conservative figures, and was not as independent as the name suggested.

Separately, the city's health authorities and experts will meet on Wednesday morning after a government team returns from Wuhan, where there has been an outbreak of pneumonia, said Mrs Lam on Tuesday morning.

She said the Hong Kong University's laboratory will be able to test more quickly and more accurately for the new virus now that it has its genetic sequence.

As it is the annual flu season and with the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations, she said preventive measures have been stepped up by the government, which will be adaptable, prepared and transparent in handling this matter.

The Hospital Authority said on Monday that there have been 68 cases of people infected with the virus since Dec 31. Of these, 56 patients, who made trips to Wuhan but did not visit the market which is said to be where the outbreak started, have been discharged.

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