Some Hong Kong civil servants, bankers to work from home as COVID spreads

3 minute read

A health worker wearing a protective suit stands as residents queue for taking nucleic acid test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a makeshift testing site, after the government announced that several residential buildings to be locked down at Kwai Chung residential area following a new COVID-19 outbreak, in Hong Kong, China, January 22, 2022. REUTERS/Lam Yik

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HONG KONG, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Hong Kong has told some civil servants to work from home from Tuesday, and some banks have given similar instructions to staff following a spate of COVID-19 infections in the Asian financial hub a week before the busy Lunar New Year holiday.

Health authorities said there were 109 new cases on Monday, out of which 98 were locally transmitted and five were untraceable. Daily cases hit an 18-month high of 140 on Sunday, fuelled by an outbreak in a congested public housing estate.

Responding to the latest covid scare, the government said in a statement on Monday that some employees would "work from home as much as possible" and warned that individual departments might have to cut back temporarily on some public services. With the Lunar New Year holiday looming, Hong Kong has locked down thousands of people in the Kwai Chung estate for five days. About 35,000 face some curbs and must have daily tests, leader Carrie Lam said over the weekend after a visit. The situation is testing Hong Kong's "zero-COVID" strategy to eliminate the disease, with schools and gyms already shut, restaurants closing at 6 p.m. and many major air links severed or disrupted. There was only a "slim chance" that city-wide restrictions could be lifted on Feb. 4 as had been planned, Lam has said. Last week authorities stirred outrage with an order to cull more than 2,000 hamsters in dozens of pet shops, after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive. EMERGENCY MEASURES Some companies have begun to enact contingency measures as the transmissions ripple across the city into hospitals, schools and government offices. Standard Chartered (STAN.L) said in a statement on Monday that it encouraged all Hong Kong colleagues to work from home, when possible, with staff in critical functions to split teams. Its branch in the covid-hit Kwai Chung area was temporarily closed. The move follows UBS Group AG's (UBSG.S) decision to shift to work-from-home operations for all except a minimum number of staff who have essential tasks to be completed in the office, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters. Just over 70% of Hong Kong's 7.5 million population have been double vaccinated, a far smaller percentage than in similar cities like Singapore, which has 90% vaccinated.

And with the majority of elderly remaining unvaccinated, authorities in Hong Kong are especially cautious of spiraling Omicron transmissions.

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Additional reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez & Simon Cameron-Moore

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