Hong Kong healthcare workers launched a five-day strike as threatened on Monday to protest their government’s refusal to completely seal the border with China until the coronavirus epidemic is under control.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam responded by announcing more travel restrictions, closing down all land crossings except the bridges to Shenzhen and Zhuhai.
Lam implemented increasing travel restrictions as protests from both the medical community and the general public intensified. On Monday, she announced the border checkpoints at Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau, as well as the port of Huang Gang and the Hong Kong-Macau ferry. Six other checkpoints were closed last week.
This leaves only the Shenzhen Bay Bridge and the bridge connecting Hong Kong to Zhuhai and Macau still in operation, but critics remain adamant on a complete shutdown of the border, so hospital workers went on strike as planned.
Lam said the four checkpoints shuttered on Monday were not closed in response to what she deemed “political” threats and “extreme action” from protesters.
“These measures are consistent with the initiatives rolled out earlier. They are completely irrelevant to the strike,” she said at a press conference on Monday.
Lam insisted it would be “inappropriate and impractical” to completely close the border with China as demanded by protesters, citing recommendations against a travel ban by the World Health Organization (WHO), whose praise the Chinese Communist Party enthusiastically cites at every opportunity.
Lam decided not to attend a meeting between representatives of the HAEA and Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority over the weekend, angering the union and causing negotiations to break down.
Hong Kong’s new Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) said 2,500 of its roughly 18,000 members participated in the strike on day one. Hundreds of them demonstrated outside hospitals, while organizers said a march would be held in the afternoon.
The HAEA posted a list of five demands, echoing the storied Five Demands of the massive Hong Kong protest movement – an homage that probably will not amuse anyone in Carrie Lam’s administration.
The five HAEA demands are for Lam’s government to seal the border with China, distribute medical masks to the public, ensure healthcare workers have the supplies they need, establish isolation wards for Wuhan virus patients, and promise not to retaliate against striking medical workers.
“If there is no full border closure, there won’t be enough manpower, protective equipment, or isolation rooms, to combat the outbreak,” HAEA chairwoman Winnie Yu warned on Sunday.
According to the union, the first round of striking employees are mostly “non-essential” staff, but a second and larger phase of walkouts will begin if the group’s demands are not met by Monday night, including frontline doctors and nurses. The Hospital Authority warned the strike could cause many scheduled procedures to be postponed but should not interfere with emergency services.