Some Hong Kong civil servants to work from home as Covid-19 spreads

Daily cases hit an 18-month high of 140 on Jan 23, as a weekend surge in infections sent authorities scrambling to rein in the virus. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong will take steps from Tuesday (Jan 25) to cut the number of civil servants working in their offices, as it battles a spate of Covid-19 infections in the run-up to the busy Chinese New Year holiday.

Health authorities said there were 109 new cases on Monday, out of which 98 were locally transmitted and five were untraceable. Daily cases hit an 18-month high of 140 on Sunday, fuelled by an outbreak in a congested public housing estate.

Responding to the latest covid scare, the government said in a statement on Monday that some employees would “work from home as much as possible” and warned that individual departments might have to cut back temporarily on some public services.

With the Chinese New Year holiday looming, Hong Kong has locked down thousands of people in the Kwai Chung estate for five days. About 35,000 face some curbs and must have daily tests, leader Carrie Lam said over the weekend after a visit.

The situation is testing Hong Kong's "zero Covid" strategy to eliminate the disease, with schools and gyms already shut, restaurants closing at 6pm and many major air links severed or disrupted.

There was only a "slim chance" that city-wide restrictions could be lifted on Feb 4 as had been planned, Mrs Lam has said.

Last week authorities stirred outrage with an order to cull more than 2,000 hamsters in dozens of pet shops, after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive.

Emergency measures 

Some companies have begun to enact contingency measures as the transmissions ripple across the city into hospitals, schools and government offices.

Standard Chartered said in a statement on Monday that it encouraged all Hong Kong colleagues to work from home, when possible, with staff in critical functions to split teams. Its branch in the Covid-hit Kwai Chung area was temporarily closed.

The move follows UBS Group AG’s decision to shift to work-from-home operations for all except a minimum number of staff who have essential tasks to be completed in the office, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.

Just over 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population have been double vaccinated, a far smaller percentage than in similar cities like Singapore, which has 90 per cent vaccinated.

And with the majority of elderly remaining unvaccinated, authorities in Hong Kong are especially cautious of spiraling Omicron transmissions.

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