Hong Kong businesses struggling to survive the coronavirus crisis will be offered a relief package of more than HK$30 billion to be unveiled on Wednesday, the Post has learned, with a portion helping to cover salaries of workers at risk of losing their jobs.
The latest financial lifeline comes as the government plans to keep schools closed until at least the end of May and extend social-distancing rules, according to two sources, in an attempt to contain the contagion that has infected 935 people in the city so far, with 21 new cases recorded on Tuesday.
A society cannot stand extreme forms of measures against the virus in the long term
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong chief executive
Speaking ahead of her weekly Executive Council meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said many industry representatives had told her ensuring job security was critical and government help was needed to keep staff employed.
“I am happy to see that stakeholders from all sectors – including employers, staff and commerce representatives – all had a consensus that the government should take reference from overseas experience to assist bosses directly so as to keep the jobs of their workers,” Lam said.
Earlier she warned that authorities would not hesitate to take stricter measures to enforce social distancing if verbal warnings did not work and more than four people continued to gather in public places. She said the government would try to strike a balance between achieving proper physical space between residents, protecting the economy and ensuring the normal functioning of society, when deciding the containment strategy.
“A society cannot stand extreme forms of measures against the virus in the long term,” Lam said.
Beginning on Wednesday, authorities will send all arrivals by shuttle bus to the temporary testing facility at AsiaWorld-Expo before they can head home for self-isolation. Those with positive results will be told within three days, according to the Department of Health.
From Thursday onwards, all arrivals from Britain must remain at the centre until the results are ready, which takes about eight hours. The measure was adopted after 69 per cent of 359 imported cases in the last two weeks came from Britain, a spokesman said.
The aid package comes after the government unveiled a HK$30 billion (US$3.86 billion) fund in February that included 24 initiatives to help struggling sectors.
The upcoming initiative would cover businesses left out of the first round, including ones related to schools, such as tutorial centres, school bus operators and physical education coaches contracted from outside, a source said.
Nine types of business covered by recent social-distancing measures such as cinemas, gyms and karaoke lounges will also receive aid, along with firms in the tourism industry.
To ensure subsidies go into the workers’ pockets, employers must make declarations when applying for the fund, a source said. The government had looked at similar measures in Britain and Singapore for guidance.
Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, an executive councillor and the lawmaker representing the catering sector, said he hoped at least HK$8 billion would go to bars, many of which have been shut, and restaurants.
“We suggested to the government that they should pay at least one month salary for the staff in March, and hopefully can further sponsor another half month of wages in May and June,” Cheung said. “A one-off subsidy should also be provided to these businesses.”
Fares on public railways will also be discounted for a period of time as a temporary measure by the government and MTR Corporation, according to a source.
Apart from providing help for businesses, the government had also discussed a raft of containment measures during the Exco meeting on Tuesday. Given new Covid-19 cases were emerging every day, a source said the advisers agreed with medical experts that resuming classes later this month as planned was too risky.
“Experts advised there should be at least 21 days without new cases before schools should resume,” the insider said. “Given the current situation, it was estimated that schools cannot reopen on April 20 and will have to remain closed until the end of May. We do not want to put the students at risk.”
Schools have been closed since the beginning of February and their reopening twice postponed, although many students are taking classes online from home. The Education Bureau was still evaluating whether university entrance exams should proceed on April 24 or be delayed.
Secretary of Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said on his blog authorities hoped to carry out the exams on schedule but were preparing backup plans if the outbreak worsened.
In an attempt to bring the number of local transmissions under control, the government has in recent weeks introduced measures to force social distancing, including limiting public gatherings to four people and requiring restaurants to ensure 1.5 metres between tables.
Those rules, introduced on March 29 and set to expire on Sunday, would remain in place for another 14 days, the source said. The administration will make the announcement on Friday.
The lockdown of leisure venues, such as cinemas, gyms and saunas, will be extended two more weeks past the original ending date on Saturday.
Although the number of new infections has dropped markedly on several days this past week, the figures remained too high for the government to consider relaxing curbs, according to another insider.
“We saw on Sunday that a lot of people headed out and the situation is worrying,” the source said. “Experts suggest we can only afford adjustments when the number goes to single digits. We see no room for relaxing the measures at the moment.”
Dr David Hui Shu-cheong, one of the infectious disease advisers to the government, agreed it was still too early to relax the social-distancing measures. “Given there are still untraceable cases in the last week, and some with unknown sources from the community, we should continue those measures until the case numbers go down further,” Hui said.
Insiders also said the government had accelerated preparation of another residential block at the Chun Yeung Estate at Fo Tan, an unoccupied housing development converted into a quarantine camp, to handle recovering and younger coronavirus patients who did not require oxygen support, freeing up beds at public hospitals for confirmed and suspected cases.
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