Will raft of social policies targeting elderly, poor and commuters ease Hong Kong’s problems?
City’s leader Carrie Lam rolls out bold list of measures including importing labour and increasing salaries for care staff, questioned by some on practicality
In a bold pledge to tackle the city’s ageing problem as part of social policies announced on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s leader raised the contentious idea of importing foreign labour and setting a zero waiting time target for care services.
In her maiden policy address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also stated plans for a new transport subsidy for commuters and relaxed requirements to apply for the low-income working family allowance.
Despite strong opposition from the labour sector, Lam said her administration would explore with stakeholders the possibility of increasing imported labour for sectors such as subsidised care services for the elderly and rehabilitation services, which have been facing an acute labour shortage.
The government would also increase the salaries of some 14,000 nursing staff at subsidised care homes for the elderly to retain and attract talent.
Official figures showed that through the Supplementary Labour Scheme, the government last year approved 3,802 non-locals to work in Hong Kong, up from 1,942 in 2012.
The number of non-local workers brought in under the scheme for the elderly care sector went up from 864 in 2012 to 1,383 last year.
Lam also revealed measures to achieve the ambitious goal of ending queues for access to community and home care services for the elderly, amid the city’s ageing population. By 2041, it is estimated that about one in three citizens would be aged 65 or above.
As of the end of August, more than 3,700 elderly residents, evaluated as fragile enough to receive services from community day care centres, faced an average wait of 11 months.
The measures include adding extra social workers and carers for 210 elderly care centres and other services, such as home care providers. An additional 1,000 Community Care Service Vouchers will also be made available, with users able to pick the services that best suit their individual needs.
The government also vowed to strengthen the city’s primary care system in a bid to lower the number of elderly patients in public hospitals, by fostering structured collaboration between the medical and social work sectors.
Meanwhile Kwai Tsing District would be equipped with the first district health centre under a new operating model within two years. A government source said this would provide allied health services instead of the centre just functioning as a clinic for people to consult doctors.
“There may be services such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Pharmacists may also be teaching patients proper medication procedures,” the source said.
The centre will be opened to patients receiving public or private health care services, or patients who have been treated in hospitals and who require follow-up care.
A district-based professional team, comprising social workers and physiotherapists, will also be formed under a four-year pilot scheme to provide outreach services for some 40,000 residents of private nursing homes for the elderly and the disabled.
On poverty alleviation, the Low-income Working Family Allowance Scheme – which has received a lukewarm response since it was launched last year – will see an overhaul with more relaxed eligibility requirements and an increased subsidy amount.
Separately, Lam announced a travel subsidy for commuters on public transport, including the MTR, franchised buses, green minibuses, ferries and trams.
Once a user has spent HK$400 for the month on their Octopus card, the government will pay 25 per cent of any further fares. The subsidy will be capped at HK$300 per person per month. The government will pay for the discount using part of the dividends it gets from the MTR Corporation, in which it is the major shareholder.
Commuters have to scan their cards at MTR stations at the end of the month for the subsidy to kick in.
Lam said she expected more than two million travellers to benefit from the plan.
According to a government source, the plan will cost HK$2 billion a year and is expected to be launched at the end of next year.
Health sector lawmaker Joseph Lee Kok-long praised Lam for adopting a new mindset in enhancing primary health care. He said he hoped the government could offer better preventive treatment and the services of daily health managers to patients at care centres who were in need.
But the city’s three labour sector lawmakers said in a joint statement that they were firmly against bringing in more foreign workers, adding it was “unacceptable” as it would drag down the salaries of local workers.
Ng Wai-tung from the Society for Community Organisation, an NGO, said the city was still far from the vision of achieving the zero waiting target even with the increase in the number of community care service vouchers.
The veteran social worker was also worried about the service quality of private community centres – which would offer the services to voucher holders.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu agreed with Ng’s assessment. Referring to the use of vouchers, Yeung said: “The government continues to shirk responsibility and push the elderly to the market.”
Yeung also criticised Lam for not mentioning universal pension in her first policy address although during her election campaign, Nelson Chow Wing-sun, a leading scholar in retirement protection, was on her team.
Lawmaker for the medical sector Dr Pierre Chan said he doubted the need to start a new pilot centre in Kwai Tsing, questioning if it was practical as current medical facilities and resources had yet to be fully utilised.
“I am not sure whether the move is made only for the sake of being creative,” Chan said.