Hong Kong’s labour chief has predicted the jobless rate will worsen slightly between February and April before it improves in the March to May period, along with the decline in the city’s fifth wave of coronavirus infections. Despite this, Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said on Saturday that the worst was over for the unemployment rate, which climbed from 4.5 per cent for the December to February period to 5 per cent for the three months to March, the highest in nine months . Some 188,500 people were jobless. Law said the jobless rate for March was better than February’s, partly because of the government’s announcement of a wage subsidy called the Employment Support Scheme (ESS), which encouraged businesses to continue operating to receive the allowance in May instead of closing down. He predicted April’s jobless rate would be worse than that of January when the fifth wave just started. Nevertheless, as the health crisis continued to be brought under control, employment would improve, he said. “We have already passed the peak of unemployment. As long as the pandemic continues to be under control, the situation will improve,” he told a radio programme, adding the monthly jobless rates were only for internal reference and not made public. Law said the government for now would not consider setting up a long-term unemployment insurance scheme, as the amount of severance and long-service payments employers paid to staff in Hong Kong already exceeded the amount of unemployment insurance and severance payments offered by some Western countries, including Britain. Applications opened on Friday until May 12 for the new round of ESS, which provides a total of HK$43 billion (US$5.48 billion) in subsidies. Employers can claim up to HK$8,000 a month for each eligible staff member for three months. Law said the response among businesses to the scheme was earnest, and he hoped the wage allowances would help them survive the pandemic and create more jobs. “We hope that, with this Employment Support Scheme, people will be able to scale up their operations and create more jobs for our labour force,” he said. Doris Ho Pui-ling, head of the government’s Policy Innovation and Coordination Office, said on Saturday that 49,000 employers and 38,000 self-employed people had already applied for the scheme. She said more than 80 per cent of the employers also applied for the last round of assistance two years ago. “The number of applications so far has met our expectations,” she said. Ho said their hotline received about 80,000 inquiry calls on Friday, compared with about 10,000 calls a day previously. She said they had doubled the number of hotline staff, and there were five service centres to help residents process the applications. Ho said earlier that the scheme was expected to benefit 160,000 employers and 1.6 million employees. The first batch of subsidies is expected to be distributed in early May.