The Hong Kong government has drawn flak from across the political spectrum for looking at shelving its plan to extend a HK$2 travel scheme to those aged between 60 and 64.
Lawmakers from across the political divide criticised the government on Wednesday for examining the possibility after reviewing the impact of broadening the scheme on public coffers.
A government source familiar with the matter told the Post “the possible deferral of … [the] extension makes sense under the current economic situation, and is being seriously explored or considered by the administration”.
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“We need to think of long-term financial implications, but the planned extension of the HK$2 subsidy scheme for the elderly aged between 60 and 64 is kind of like ‘fruit money’ for the elderly. You can’t treat it as an economic measure … nor should you treat it as a real substantial welfare measure.”
In January, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced the lowering of the age threshold of city residents from 65 to 60 for using public transport for just HK$2 per ride. The move was expected to cost the government about HK$1.7 billion annually.
However, the financial impact of the move amid the coronavirus pandemic has apparently forced the government to take it back to the drawing board.
The extension of the scheme – which was launched in 2012 and covers MTR lines, franchised buses, ferries, and green minibuses – would benefit about 600,000 Hongkongers. It was also likely to encourage more people aged 60 to 64 to re-enter the workforce.
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong said in July that the extension would take effect in April next year.
However, when contacted by the Post, the Labour and Welfare Bureau did not confirm whether it was being put on hold.
A bureau spokesman said the government had engaged a consultancy firm to conduct a comprehensive review of the scheme’s effectiveness and sustainability, including long-term financial impact.
“The government is studying the analysis and the recommendations in the consultant’s report, to assess the implementation arrangements and the financial commitment,” he said.
However, lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, vice-chairwoman of the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, said a U-turn on the extension would be unacceptable.
“This has been planned for a long time and Carrie Lam has also announced it. The government needs to clarify when the new measure is rolled out,” she said.
“Many people have become jobless and are having financial difficulties. Those aged between 60 and 64 badly need this fare concession.”
Civic Party legislator Jeremy Tam Man-ho said if the government was cash-strapped, it should ditch its HK$600 billion Lantau Tomorrow Vision, instead of sacrificing elderly welfare.
“This is another example of how messy the government’s financial priorities are. We can foresee that authorities are willing to sacrifice people’s livelihoods and welfare for something far-fetched and impractical,” he said.
Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, former chairman of Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, said the government would fail to fulfil its obligations if it chose to scrap or delay the scheme’s extension. He also called Executive Council members who opposed the move “cold-blooded”.
“Any U-turn on the measure would deprive those aged between 60 and 64 of the chance to enjoy cheaper fares for going out to do voluntary work, visit friends or families, or do other tasks,” he said.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in a statement called on the government to clarify its position on the scheme and to roll it out for the elderly in accordance with the promise Lam made to the public.
“DAB cannot accept the government to delay or put on hold the plan under the pretext that it is prone to abuse … The issue of abuse could be tackled by different measures,” it said.
A growing number of retired people are returning to the labour market in ageing Hong Kong. The number of workers aged between 60 and 64 increased from 98,000 in 2008 to 259,000 in 2018, accounting for 47.3 per cent of those in the age group, according to the Census and Statistics Department.
Since the scheme was introduced in 2012, the number of eligible people aged 65 or above increased about 35 per cent, from 980,000 to 1.32 million in 2019. It is expected to rise further to more than 1.75 million by 2025.
The recurrent expenditure for reimbursing public transport operators under the scheme reached HK$1.3 billion last financial year and is expected to rise to about HK$3 billion by 2025/26. Following the scheme’s extension, the estimated recurrent expenditure was expected to reach HK$7 billion in 2025/26.
In July, Law told the Legislative Council that people abusing the system by using Octopus cards meant for the elderly was also a cause of concern for the government. In 2018, some 3.6 million Octopus cards meant for those aged 65 or above were issued, while there were only 1.27 million people aged 65 or above in Hong Kong that year.
“The failure to prevent such abuse will cause substantial waste of public money,” he said.
During an Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, Law again voiced concern over the abuse of Octopus Cards, meant for the elderly, by other people. He said the plan would be extended only when personalised Octopus cards could be launched.
A source familiar with the situation said while the government had not ruled out the plan entirely during the Tuesday’s meeting, it had not offered a concrete timetable on when to introduce it.
Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam
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