Coronavirus: more than 500 doctors, health care workers in HK join calls for border closure with mainland China, threatening strikes in strongly worded letters to officials

01-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

More than 500 doctors, nurses and health care professionals in Hong Kong public hospitals have threatened to go on strike after penning strongly worded letters to officials, demanding immediate action to close the city’s borders with mainland China.

Frontline staff in the overburdened local medical sector also complained about a “dangerous working environment” amid the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak that put both their lives and that of patients at risk.

The action included a group of 403 health workers in internal medicine from Hong Kong West Cluster public hospitals who put their names in an open letter on Thursday, issuing four demands, among which was the complete closure of all border control points. The group also pressed the government to deport visitors from Hubei province, or isolate them for two weeks, in line with steps taken by Macau.

Ambulance workers in protective gear load a stretcher at Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong on Wednesday. (Bloomberg)

Ambulance workers in protective gear load a stretcher at Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong on Wednesday. (Bloomberg)

The medical staff, from Queen Mary, Grantham, Fung Yiu King and Tung Wah hospitals, said the measures were needed to “curb the perverse incentive” for non-residents to come to the city for medical care at this critical time, and “prevent a full-blown outbreak” in Hong Kong.

They threatened a strike and other industrial action beginning as early as February 3 if their demands were ignored.

“Seventeen years ago, when the spectre of Sars hung over Hong Kong, we were caught unaware and had little chance to make adequate provisions before disaster struck,” the statement read.

“This time, we still have a window of opportunity to prevent a catastrophic outbreak that will threaten the lives of more than 7 million Hong Kong residents. The government cannot tarry and must take firm action immediately.”

Benjamin So, an internal medicine resident doctor at Queen Mary Hospital and a signatory of the letter, said his colleagues broke their silence because government policy and the “dangerous working environment” had jeopardised the lives and health of patients and staff members.

He claimed there were unsafe practices by hospital management, such as work rosters that put medical staff in so-called dirty wards for patients with the coronavirus infection, then having them switch back to ordinary wards with no break in between to ensure proper cleansing.

He also said the hospital did not provide accommodation for staff working in isolation wards.

Queen Mary Hospital has received two coronavirus patients in its isolation wards, but So said there were also only 21 isolation beds currently available at his hospital, as opposed to 90 as officially stated.

“Some parts of the ward are undergoing renovation, and some beds are occupied by patients with serious illnesses that cannot be easily moved out,” he said.

A hospital spokeswoman said management would meet with staff representatives and had set up a hotline to listen to views.

A hospital source also told the Post that 90 isolation wards could become available within a short conversion period, adding that the hospital was actively seeking accommodation in hotels and in-house residence for staff working in isolation wards.

More than 100 medical staff members from Wan Chai’s Ruttonjee Hospital of the Hong Kong East Cluster also wrote to Hospital Authority CEO Tony Ko Pat-sing on Wednesday, calling on officials to close all borders with the mainland and similarly threatening industrial action.

Dr Yung Chi-yui, who participated in the petition, said on Thursday that in a reply to them, the hospital’s chief executive Dr Beatrice Cheng said management “respected” their letter, and urged all medical staff to stay safe and approach them when faced with difficulty.

“I feel that she is sincere by replying to our letter, but it is out of her hands to [close the borders],” said Yung, adding that industrial action was a last resort and calling on the government to take action.

A Ruttonjee Hospital spokeswoman said the Hospital Authority had reflected colleagues’ views to the government, and it understood the concerns of staff.

The novel coronavirus originating from Wuhan has infected 11 people in Hong Kong and claimed nearly 200 lives in mainland China.

The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, a new pro-democracy union representing public sector health workers, also demanded border closure in a five-point statement earlier this week, and warned of a work boycott on February 3 if their requests were not met.



Category: Hong Kong

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