Hong Kong Tightens Border as Medical Workers Call for Shutdown


HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s government said Monday that it would close more border checkpoints, as some medical workers went on strike to demand a complete ban on entries from mainland China to limit the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, has faced increasing calls from hospital employees, the business community and even some pro-government lawmakers to further tighten border controls with mainland China, where the virus emerged in December.

More than 2,500 medical workers in Hong Kong — mostly those considered to be nonemergency personnel — went on strike Monday morning to pressure the authorities to bar entries from mainland China. The number of strikers was expected to grow if the government did not relent.

The medical workers, who are members of a newly formed union, said they were worried that hospitals will be overwhelmed by a surge of coronavirus cases as mainland Chinese seek to use Hong Kong’s health care system.

The increasingly fraught debate over Hong Kong’s border reflects its unusual status within China. Since it returned from British control 23 years ago, Hong Kong has been given a degree of autonomy, including its own border controls, a model known as “one country, two systems.”

But if the city does not further tighten its border, the striking medical workers argue, it risks an outbreak comparable to that in the mainland. Already, some countries have included Hong Kong with the rest of China in recently announced restrictions on arrivals, though the city has just 15 of the more than 17,000 confirmed cases nationwide.

Mrs. Lam announced some measures last week to cut arrivals from mainland China, including the closure of several border checkpoints, halting cross-border trains and cutting inbound flights. The government also said it would not allow entry by residents of Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak, or people who acknowledged that they had traveled there recently.

Arrivals by mainland residents dropped by 62 percent since those restrictions were put in place, she said, and would fall further with the newly announced closures.

But she has resisted a complete prohibition on mainland arrivals, calling such a move “a discriminatory approach” and not in line with recommendations from the World Health Organization.

Mrs. Lam said the closure of four more border points at midnight Monday was in response to advice from experts and not the strike.

“If anyone thinks that extreme means could force the hand of the Hong Kong S.A.R. government and the Hospital Authority, threatening us into doing unreasonable things that would harm the public, they are wrong,” she said.

She also criticized the striking hospital workers. “To use extreme means in such a sensitive time would inevitably affect the rights of the patient and add immensely to the burdens of the already beleaguered Hospital Authority leaders,” Mrs. Lam said.

Members of the newly formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance rallied outside of public hospitals on Monday morning.

The union has about 18,000 members, including 9,000 who have signed pledges to strike. The Hospital Authority of Hong Kong has about 80,000 employees in total.

Signaling concerns among business executives, more than half of American business leaders questioned said they wanted to see the Hong Kong government shut down the border with mainland China, according to a survey of 156 executives by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

A handful of explosive devices have also been placed around the city in recent days, followed by anonymous threats online of more bombs if the mainland border was not completely sealed. On Sunday, two devices were found in a train at the border, the police said. One ignited, but no injuries were reported.

To lessen the effects of the strike, some private sector doctors have said they would volunteer to help in hospitals. And other unions, including the Hong Kong Public Nurses Association and the Hong Kong Medical and Health Care Staff General Union, condemned the strike and urged their members to stay on the job.

The initial cases in Hong Kong were all found in people who returned from the mainland. But the latest appeared to have been transferred between a 39-year-old man who returned from a trip to Wuhan on Jan. 23 and his 72-year-old mother.

Some in Hong Kong’s business community have also voiced concerns that if Hong Kong does not further tighten its border, it will be lumped in with mainland China by countries barring entry.

Vietnam initially took that step on Saturday, when it included Hong Kong in a ban on most flights from China and Taiwan. But hours later it relented, limiting the restrictions to mainland China.

The Philippines, where the first coronavirus death outside China was announced on Sunday, went further, barring non-Filipino arrivals from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Mrs. Lam’s reluctance to further clamp down on entries from the mainland is seen by her critics as a sign of her prioritizing the expectations of the central government over the Hong Kong public.

“Carrie Lam once again seems to be adopting one country over two systems,” said David Webb, an independent investor in Hong Kong.

Countries including the United States, Australia and Singapore have barred entry by foreigners who have recently been to mainland China. If case numbers increase in Hong Kong, the city could find itself lumped in with the restrictions on people traveling from the mainland, Mr. Webb said.

“Residents are not allowed to go to libraries, to concerts, to amusement parks,” he said. “The city is on an unprecedented level of lockdown. At the same time, we’re allowing potential cases to walk across the border into Hong Kong. That’s inconsistent. If everybody should make every effort, then we should shut down the border except to essential traffic.”

Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting.


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