Hong Kong legislature to vote on temporary funding next week despite work-from-home order amid Covid-19 spike

Alvin Lum

Hong Kong’s legislature will meet as scheduled next week to vote on necessary government funding, despite most civil servants being told to work from home amid a spike in Covid-19 cases.

The Legislative Council’s secretariat told the Post on Sunday it would convene its regular Wednesday and Thursday weekly meetings, though staff not directly involved would work from home.

Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, who made the decision, is expected to make the formal announcement on Monday.

Plans to once again have most civil servants work from home starting Monday were announced on Saturday by city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, though this time no tentative date was given for an end to the arrangement.

Tanya Chan, convenor of the pro-democracy bloc, said opposition lawmakers initially refused to attend last Thursday’s Legco session over public health concerns. Photo: KY Cheng

A government spokesman confirmed on Sunday that all departments would provide only emergency and essential services “until further notice”.

The judiciary, meanwhile, has once again shut its doors, adjourning most hearings until April 5 “subject to [further] review”.

Legco is currently scrutinising the government’s 2019/20 budget, which was announced in late February and would typically be voted on in April or May.

Lawmakers have been debating since Wednesday a HK$215.9 billion proposal that would fund government operations from April 1, the start of the new financial year, until the full budget is formally approved. The proposal must go to a vote on or before March 31.

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Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury James Lau said on Wednesday that the interim funding was essential in order for public services to continue uninterrupted.

“In fact, failure to secure the passage of the Vote on Account resolution in a timely manner would pose a real and serious threat to the continued operation of the government,” Lau said, adding that payments to the Hospital Authority or social security allowances could be among those affected.

The opposition camp, critical of Lam and the police force’s handling of anti-government protests, have attempted to block the funding via procedural motions, arguing that funding for police and Lam’s office should be dropped entirely.

The full council was temporarily adjourned on Thursday morning due to an insufficient quorum when opposition lawmakers failed to show up, but reconvened later in the day.

Legislative Council president Andrew Leung is expected to formally announce that Legco sessions will go forward on Monday morning. Photo: Nora Tam

Tanya Chan, convenor of the pro-democracy bloc, said they opposed the meeting due to public health risks, citing the hundreds of secretariat staff and civil servants who would have to work inside the Legco complex on a regular meeting day.

“The jump [in local coronavirus cases] the past few days were all double figures per day, and the origin of some local cases could not be traced,” Chan said.

She said while the government is duty bound to consider contingency plans, it should not assume Legco will “rubber-stamp” any funding proposal put before it.

The pro-establishment camp, which controls a simple majority in the house, said the funding proposal would be put to a vote in the coming week.

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“It’s only a matter of time. It will definitely be passed in the week, maybe after a bit of struggle session,” said veteran lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, of the New People’s Party.

Lawmaker Gary Chan Hak-kan was also optimistic about its passage, accusing the pro-democracy camp of delaying it with filibustering tactics.

“Typically, the vote on account resolution is not controversial at all, and any dispute against the government is left to the [full] budget itself,” said Gary Chan, who belongs to the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

“The situation is not satisfactory … Two days should be sufficient to complete the debate, but more time could be spent if the opposition camp raises more procedural motions.”

Legco has already suspended all committee meetings due to the epidemic. But the Finance Committee and its subcommittee on public works have carried on. If plans remain unchanged, ministers are expected to face lawmakers’ scrutiny on spending for individual bureaus from April 3 onwards.

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