Coronavirus Hong Kong: health experts break with city leader by calling for civil servants to work from home, suspension of in-person classes

·5-min read

Civil servants should work from home and in-person classes ought to be suspended to help contain an emerging fifth Covid-19 wave in Hong Kong, health experts have argued, although the city’s leader has cautioned the steps are not needed.

Neither do school principals nor parents believe that in-person learning should be cancelled at the moment.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on Wednesday that authorities would tighten social-distancing rules to combat Omicron infections, including a 6pm curfew on all dine-in service and banning flights from eight countries.

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But Lam said she would not tell civil servants to work from home as they had been ordered to do during previous waves, arguing their duties were substantial given the current state of the pandemic and such an arrangement would not be practical.

Students would also continue to go to classes as forcing them to stay at home greatly affected their physical and mental well-being.

In a letter sent to all schools on Wednesday, the Education Bureau said that while face-to-face classes would continue as usual, no large-scale school activities should be held, including sports days and swimming galas.

But the new restrictions were not enough to ensure infections were kept to a minimum, respiratory medicine expert Leung Chi-chiu warned.

“Preventing people from gathering is the key for breaking the chain of infection, and it is not about just shutting down different venues,” Leung said.

“If the government does not lead the way for working from home, how can it convince residents that the virus situation we are facing is urgent? How to let private companies follow the government’s footsteps?”

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Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, co-chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, agreed suspending in-person classes would be an effective additional measure, especially when most younger students were unvaccinated.

“I believe the government will analyse the situation and adjust to changing circumstances in terms of the working from home guide. At least the dine-in curfew is a good start,” he said.

Vu Im-fan, a principal and chairwoman of the Subsidised Primary Schools Council, said all schools had been strictly complying with preventive measures since the start of the pandemic and there were almost no infections on campus.

“We are doing all we can to ensure teaching and learning will not be switched to online again,” she said, adding long periods of class suspension affected students’ social and communication skills.

The Post earlier reported that nearly 22 per cent of students displayed signs of anxiety, including 5 per cent who showed severe levels, following months of school suspensions, according to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups in 2020.

“The Covid-19 pandemic also had an impact on their stress levels, given that classes had been suspended for a long time. Some of them were particularly concerned about whether they had missed out on the syllabus after online classes replaced face-to-face ones,” said the federation’s services coordinator, Hsu Siu-man.

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Vu called on all school staff and parents to get vaccinated as soon as possible, while urging the government to provide sufficient time, ideally three to five days, for them to prepare should in-person classes be suspended. Doing so would allow working parents to make better care arrangements for children stranded at home.

Ray Hau hon-shek, chairman of the North District Federation of Parent-Teacher Association, agreed that class suspensions were not needed at the moment given no outbreaks had occurred in schools.

“Not everyone is able to hire a maid and it is especially hard for double-income parents,” Hau said.

Leung Chau-ting, chief executive of the Hong Kong Federation of Civil Service Unions, agreed civil servants should go to work for now given some government work could not be taken home.

In previous waves, civil servants who were required to keep working at the office became overloaded, while department operations were affected when physical manpower was slashed by two-thirds, he said.

“There will be a huge amount of backlog in terms of documents and files for providing service to the public after the resumption of normal working mode. It cannot be cleared within a short time,” Leung said.

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Alexa Chow Yee-ping, managing director of ACTS Consulting, said given Omicron fears, she foresaw more companies would relaunch working from home, given the requirement that close contacts of confirmed cases be quarantined for 21 days.

“Productivity and operations will thus be greatly affected once there is a staff member infected, while the cost of implementing work-from-home arrangements is relatively low,” she noted.

Chow said some private companies had allowed staff to work from home since 2020 and it was already viewed as a family-friendly initiative.

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