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The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance held an extraordinary general meeting at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, near Kowloon City. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Coronavirus: thousands of Hong Kong hospital workers back strike to demand closure of border with mainland China

  • Various hospital workers’ groups rail against government’s refusal to close all checkpoints along boundary with mainland China
  • Pro-democracy Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which has 18,000 members, votes in favour of industrial action as early as Monday

Thousands of Hong Kong doctors, nurses and hospital employees have voted for a strike which could begin as early as Monday, to press the government to close all borders with mainland China amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The pro-democracy Hospital Authority Employees Alliance announced that, of 3,156 eligible votes cast on Saturday, 3,123 were in support of the strike, while only 10 people voted against, and another 23 abstained. There were eight invalid votes.

The alliance warned of more action if officials do not heed their demands.

The escalation came as various hospital workers’ groups piled pressure on the government over its response to the deadly infection, which first broke out in mainland China’s Hubei province.

Carrie Lam previously ruled out a full closure of the mainland border. Photo: Winson Wong
Health chief Sophia Chan Siu-chee shed tears earlier in the day, as she voiced concern over the possible strike, while Hospital Authority chairman Henry Fan Hung-ling urged the 18,000-strong alliance, which was formed in December, to think again.
A day earlier, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor insisted she would not accede to demands to close all mainland border checkpoints, citing the World Health Organisation’s warning against discriminatory measures, following a partial closure of six out of 15 border checkpoints earlier this week.

Speaking after the results came in, alliance chairwoman Winnie Yu Wai-ming had tears in her eyes as she said the outcome reflected a clear demand for the government. She urged Lam to attend the alliance’s meeting the next day with the Hospital Authority, to listen to their voices face to face. 

“If she does not attend the meeting, we will not participate. Because the power of deciding on the closure of borders lies with the government, instead of the Hospital Authority,” Yu said.

She said if discussions on Sunday fell apart, the strike – intended to come in phases, over five days – would go ahead.

“We [voted to go] on strike only because were no other options,” she said.

Asked about of the relatively low turnout – with only 17 per cent of members voting – Yu said there were many other health care staff members who wanted to vote but were either working during the voting period or not in the city.

The alliance added that if the government ignored its demands until February 7, further escalations might happen, but they would also closely assess developments each day.

By Saturday evening, about 9,000 medical workers had signed a petition pledging to join the strike. That included about 6,000 nurses and 700 doctors. More than 2,500, or about 30 per cent, were non-essential staff.

The Hospital Authority said it would pay close attention to developments related to the strike, as public hospitals sought to maintain services and minimise the effect on patients.

Thousands of packages, many including masks, back on the move soon

According to its most recent figures, the authority has about 77,000 staff working at public hospitals and other facilities, of whom about 6,500 are doctors and 27,000 are nurses.

Staff working in non-essential areas were expected to be the first batch to skip work on Monday, while the rest would join from Tuesday to Friday.

The contagion, which the World Health Organisation has declared a global health emergency, has snowballed with the number of cases in mainland China rising to more than 11,700 on Saturday, coupled with a death toll of more than 250.

Hong Kong recorded its 14th case late on Saturday evening.

Apart from a complete closure of all borders, the alliance’s other demands included that the government make clear policies to ensure a supply of surgical masks; a halt on non-emergency services and an increase in the number of isolation wards at hospitals; better support for medical practitioners; and an open promise not to punish those who participate in the strike.

If a strike could force the government to close all borders, it would be beneficial to Hong Kong at large, as it could lower the risk of more Hongkongers getting infected by the virus
Nurse, surnamed Chan

At the alliance’s extraordinary general meeting, which took place at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity near Kowloon City on Saturday, voting ran between 2.30pm and 7pm.

A nurse surnamed Chan, who works at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, also backed the strike. She said the government had ignored public demands and thereby helped to stoke local concerns.

She added that she was not trying to protect herself from infection.

“By joining the strike, it doesn’t mean that I’m afraid of sacrificing my own life. Instead, if a strike could force the government to close all borders, it would be beneficial to Hong Kong at large, as it could lower the risk of more Hongkongers getting infected by the virus.

“If I were just afraid of giving up my own life at work, I could have just resigned beforehand instead of going on strike.”

A public hospital doctor, surnamed Leung and in his 20s, said a strike was the last resort, but necessary.

“Many of the confirmed cases in Hong Kong had recently been to the mainland, while some of them had also attempted to conceal important information such as travel history. A partial closure of borders is definitely not enough,” he said.

“A strike is certainly not what we want. But if we don’t do this now and press the government to do more, our medical system is definitely going to be overloaded before long.”

The alliance was joined in its call for border closures by the city’s biggest nursing union. The Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff, which has about 20,000 nurses from public hospitals as members, previously said it would not rule out a “second wave” of potential strikes if the administration did not listen to the sector’s demands.

It was set to hold an extraordinary general meeting on February 11 to discuss potential industrial action.

And, in a joint letter, more than 1,000 doctors, nurses and other health care professionals from the Kowloon East cluster of public hospitals fired a shot across the government’s bows, echoing demands for border action but stopping short of threatening a strike.

The group, including Public Doctors’ Association president Arisina Ma Chung-yee, also demanded a law to punish patients with suspected coronavirus infections who withhold information on their occupation or travel or contact history.

Elsewhere, more than 380 employees at general outpatient clinics under the Hospital Authority signed a joint statement urging the government to close all Hong Kong-mainland borders. They said only city residents and mainlanders with working or student visas should be allowed entry.

“If the government neglects our advice, we will adopt any strategies that are in line with professionalism and the safeguards of labour laws, including strikes, to urge the government to choose the correct anti-epidemic path by closing the borders,” the statement read.

Additional reporting by Kanis Leung and Victor Ting