Hong Kong’s civil servants will return to government offices from next Monday, after spending a month working from home in a bid to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the Post has learned.
Public health experts said the move would inevitably increase the risk of infection with the number of cases still on the rise and urged the government to allow flexible work arrangements for employees.
According to a government memo from the Civil Service Bureau, department heads have been told to prepare for the resumption of normal public services from March 2, although access to government buildings will be tightened amid the risk posed by the new coronavirus, which can cause the Covid-19 disease.
“The special work arrangement has been operating since January 29. HoDs [heads of departments] have been monitoring closely their operations, including their provision of public services, and making adjustments having regard to their individual circumstances,” the memo said.
“It has been decided that from Monday, March 2, all public services of the government should resume normal in an orderly manner with special measures to be taken where appropriate in line with the government’s social distancing objective.”
Among the changes, people entering all government offices and buildings with public access would get a body temperature check, while residents may benefit from extended opening hours for services as officials try to limit the number of people who have to wait for help. Equally, some services would only be offered on alternate days.
Since late January, government departments have closed their offices and the city’s public sports facilities, museums, and libraries have been shut until further notice. However, emergency, essential and basic public services remained available.
Civil servants have been told to take their body temperature before work and they should not go to the office if it is not normal. The government has also advised staff to avoid social and meal gatherings.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong of Chinese University, who advised city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on fighting the epidemic, said the resumption of public services would increase the risk of outbreak.
“Civil servants will be taking public transport, making the facilities more crowded. This would increase the risks of infection,” Hui said.
He urged the public to continue with the strategy of social distancing.
“We will have to wait till there are only a few sporadic new cases, maybe only one case over three to four days, only then we can be more relaxed,” Hui said.
Dr Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the advisory committee on communicable diseases at the Hong Kong Medical Association, felt the government’s decision came a bit too early.
“We still have some new cases within family … the risks of infection will definitely be high,” Leung said.
“Could the government shorten the work hours, to ensure all people won’t be going out to work or have lunch at the same time?”
The government, meanwhile, has stopped providing face masks to most civil servants, as centrally procured masks will only be provided to frontline workers involved in health care, quarantine duties, or essential public services.
Leung Chau-ting, chief executive of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, said the government should provide at least one face mask a day to each civil servant.
“The government can’t ask the civil servants to bring their own masks or other protective gear. As the biggest employer, you have to take care of the safety of your employees,” he said.
“If one employee gets infected, everybody else in the entire government building will have to be evacuated – that’s not worth it.”
The curtailment of the work-from-home policy emerged after it was announced on Tuesday that Hong Kong schools would remain shut until April 20 at the earliest, stretching the closure to at least 11 weeks.
The number of coronavirus infections in Hong Kong reached 85 on Tuesday, with four new cases confirmed, including a Jockey Club member, a KFC employee and an MTR station attendant.