Cash handout for struggling Hongkongers could take four months to arrive, welfare minister admits

Kimmy Chung

Struggling Hong Kong families and students expecting a cash handout as part of the government’s coronavirus aid package will have to wait months to get the money, the welfare minister admitted on Saturday.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-Kwong also said some people would not benefit from the subsidy, as he gave more details about the HK$5,000 (US$644) gift a day after the government announced a HK$25 billion scheme for businesses and vulnerable groups.

“The influence of this epidemic is huge, with estimates suggesting more than a million workers have been affected. Some have had their jobs suspended, or have been made to take unpaid leave,” Law said.

On Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced a wide-ranging relief package for sectors hit by the coronavirus outbreak, including the cash payments and money for kindergartens, which have been ordered to stay closed until at least March 16.

Money has also been set aside for businesses hit hardest by the coronavirus, with travel agents, retailers and restaurants expected to get between HK$80,000 and HK$200,000. Licensed hawkers are to receive HK$5,000.

Law said the handout for low-income families would be expedited to provide quick relief, with red tape kept to a minimum, and should arrive “hopefully in four months’ time”.

“If we ask them to prove they are taking unpaid leave, and go through a series of procedures, we might repeat the agony faced in handing out the HK$4,000 last year,” he said.

To offer help quickly, Law said the government would make use of the current allowance schemes for working families and needy students, giving the extra cash to recipients in four months’ time.

The one-off subsidy would double the monthly allowance, Law said, meaning a single person getting HK$1,200 would receive HK$2,400, while a family of three could get an extra HK$8,400.

As for families with higher household incomes, he said the budget, which is to be released on February 26, may offer further alleviation measures for them.

The plans have to be approved by the Legislative Council, and a special sitting has been arranged for February 21.

Opposition lawmakers said they would not block the funding, and said the government should act quick to get money to those in need.

Tanya Chan, the convenor pro-democracy bloc, said the camp was still discussing the proposals, but hoped the government could provide more detail on how they would work.

Radical lawmaker Ray Chan Chi-chuen said he likely will not be filibustering the item.

“We are still going to ask for details, but we won’t be stopping it,” lawmaker Ray Chan Chi-chuen said. “The government is picking up where it left off, and it’s only a one-time basis. But we can’t tell whether we’d agree if there is a second time.”

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, felt direct hand outs could also cover those who did not receive any allowances under the social security system.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen, of the Federation of Trade Unions, said the group was disappointed that it would still take four months for people to get the money.

She called on the government to speed up for handling the cash allowance for the unemployed.

She also said although the government had set aside HK$80,000 for travel agents, little would reach the employees as tours had yet to resume.

More direct help for the workers, including cross-border transport drivers, was much needed, she said.

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