Every Hong Kong resident should be given HK$5,000 (US$645) in digital cash vouchers to speed up the city’s economic recovery during the coronavirus pandemic, several pro-establishment lawmakers have suggested.
But Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu remained uncommitted to the proposal, saying on Wednesday the government must consider whether it was “affordable and feasible”.
“We have rolled out multiple rounds of anti-epidemic relief measures, and our estimated deficit has ballooned to HK$300 billion [US$38.7 billion]. Our fiscal reserve has also decreased by 30 per cent, to about HK$800 billion,” he said. “Facing uncertainties in the internal and external economic environment, we must be prudent in public finance … and be prepared for future needs.”
Hui was speaking in the Legislative Council, in response to a question raised by Liberal Party legislator Peter Shiu Ka-fai, who represents the wholesale and retail sector.
Shiu said: “The government gave out HK$10,000 to each resident last year … but with the pandemic, the business situation is still very bad. That’s why we are proposing an electronic consumption voucher.
“It’s simple, the government can give out Octopus cards with HK$5,000 dollars on it. Each holder can use HK$500 per week … In this way, the frontline retail, catering, suppliers, wholesalers and logistics sectors can be revived.”
Liberal Party chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, who represents the catering sector, argued the voucher scheme should be rolled out when the coronavirus pandemic was over.
“You must not do it when there are social-distancing rules and all kinds of bans in place,” said the lawmaker, who is also a member of the city leader’s de facto cabinet. “Would you go back and discuss with the financial secretary and the secretary for innovation and technology about this?”
As part of the social-distancing strategy, restaurants can only serve two people per table and must stop dine-in service by 6pm. Other businesses, such as beauty parlours and karaoke lounges, were forced to close.
Business and Professionals Alliance legislator Abraham Razack, who represents the real estate and construction sector, agreed with the Liberal Party’s proposal. He said the scheme could help to alleviate the hardship of people who had lost their jobs.
“It is easy to give out these electronic vouchers to those employed … secretary, you receive your salary every month, and you won’t lose your job. But have you thought of those people who are struggling to put dinner on the table during this cold winter?”
Hui responded that the government had created a large number of jobs, including 3,000 temporary posts. He cautioned officials needed to consider the “feasibility, affordability and desirability” of the electronic vouchers.
“Affordability refers to our financial situation, while desirability includes the expected effect of the scheme and what the overseas experience was with similar plans,” he said.
“The financial secretary has been consulting the public on the next budget, we have heard the Liberal Party’s opinion and we will consider it.”
The government’s next budget will be delivered on February 24.