Wuhan virus: Thousands of Hong Kong medical workers to strike after government refuses to shut all entry points from China

Representatives from various unions hold slogans during a press conference on the latest update of the strike actions in Hong Kong on Feb 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Thousands of Hong Kong medical professionals will begin a five-day strike on Monday (Feb 3) after the government refused their demand to shut all entry points from China amid a deadly virus outbreak on the mainland.

Talks between the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance 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 the union's chairwoman Winnie Yu. Industrial action has "officially begun," she was quoted as saying.

A vote by more than 3,000 of the union's members on Saturday resulted in about 99 per cent of "Yes" votes to strike. More than 9,000 members have pledged to take part, first in suspending non-emergency services offered by the city's Hospital Authority before extending it to providing only limited emergency needs, it said.

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 centred, 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.

Hours after Hong Kong medical workers vote, the government appeared to open the door for 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 service, praising them for "standing fast at their posts."

The union, established late last year, said the decision to strike "is not an easy one." The group cancelled planned negotiations with the Hospital Authority on Sunday because Chief Executive Lam was not attending, RTHK reported. It said Lam's refusal to attend means talks had already broken down, according to the report.

Separately, a Hong Kong Executive Council member said that residents should avoid travelling to the mainland or risk having difficulties returning to the city, Radio Television Hong Kong reported on Sunday.

Lam Ching Choi's statement was a sign that the government could ramp up border-control restrictions. Lam said possible measures include shortening opening times for ports, limiting transportation and introducing laws to curb cross-border traffic, the report said.

A complete closing of the border sought by the workers is "not the right answer" and is not in line with World Health Organisation guidelines, Mrs Lam said at a briefing on Friday.

Restrictions on travel to and from China have widened as rising fear of the Wuhan coronavirus prompted countries to bar flights, ignoring the guidance of the World Health Organisation. The US, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and New Zealand are among countries restricting entry to non-citizens travelling 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.

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.

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 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.

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