Thousands of medical workers in Hong Kong joined a second day of strikes on Tuesday to put pressure on the government to impose a full shutdown of the Chinese border to curb the coronavirus outbreak. The SARS-like virus has killed one man in Hong Kong, and more than 420 others worldwide.

The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) estimated that around 7,000 medics took part in the strike. Members of the union gathered at the Hospital Authority head office in the morning as more than 4,000 workers submitted petition letters to the authority.

Hospital Authority Employees Alliance
Hospital Authority Employees Alliance members on second phase strike outside Hospital Authority headquarters. Photo: Hospital Authority Employees Alliance.

The escalation came after talks with Hospital Authority representatives broke down on Monday evening.

The alliance’s leader said their employer did not, and could not, respond to workers’ demands for a complete border closure directly: “If we don’t stop the virus at its source, even if we have more manpower, resources or more isolation wards, the problem cannot be solved,” Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the HKEA told local media at the Hospital Authority head office.

“Our demands cannot be met by the Hospital Authority, so we hope [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam can join the negotiation table.”

Yu added that, if there is a major community outbreak in Hong Kong, the union will review the situation and halt the strike.

virus face mask
Hongkongers queue for face masks on Tuesday. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The government said on Monday that all land crossings, except Shenzhen Bay Port and the HongKong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, would temporarily close in light of the coronavirus outbreak. But the authorities have resisted calls to fully close the border.

‘Really scared’

Ms Ng, a frontline medic at Queen Mary Hospital, told HKFP that around 40 per cent of staff members in her department took part in the strike. She said some of her colleagues who work outside the isolation wards without full-body protective gear felt unsafe treating patients who may not fully disclose their medical and travel history.

Medics on strike holding placards to urge full seal of borders.
Photo: Chau Ho Man/ United Social Press

“We don’t really know if a newly admitted patient is withholding any information or not, so some staff members, especially the ones working in medical admission, are really scared,” Ng said.

Lam expressed concern over the disruption of hospital services caused by the strike during a media briefing on Tuesday. She said that several departments faced serious service disruption, including Accident & Emergency Departments, Neonatal Intensive Care Units and isolation wards.

“This level of service disruption is worrying, and it directly affects many Hong Kong citizens who are urgently in need of those services,” said Lam.

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She praised public hospital medics who remained on duty, as well as workers from private clinics and hospitals who agreed to assist the Hospital Authority in maintaining services.

The Hospital Authority issued a statement on Tuesday morning announcing that public hospital services may be limited owing to the strike. They also appealed to medics on strike to return to work as soon as possible.

“In the interests of patients, the HA appeals to all healthcare workers who are absent from duty to return to work the soonest to provide patient services in need.” the statement wrote.

As of Monday, the World Health Organization confirmed over 17,000 cases worldwide, with 514 deaths.

A 39-year-old man became the first to die from the infection in the city on Tuesday. Two more cases were confirmed hours later, raising the total number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong to 17.

The symptoms of the new coronavirus resemble the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed more than 300 people in Hong Kong in 2003.

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.