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Monday, Oct 26, 2020

Hong Kong third wave: union urges government to allow civil servants to work from home

At least 10 staff, including from immigration, and customs and excise departments have recently been confirmed as infected. But the government has stopped short of reintroducing across-the-board remote working for its employees

Hong Kong’s civil servants have urged the government to allow them to work from home, as more staff fall ill amid a third wave of coronavirus infections.

The Civil Service Bureau said on Thursday evening that it had told departments they could let staff work remotely as long as public services would not be affected. But the government, as Hong Kong’s largest employer, stopped short of asking civil servants to stay away from the office as they did in late January.

On Friday, the bureau said it had provided departments with additional guidelines on targeted social distancing and infection control measures, including implementing staggered work and lunch hours, and adopting a roster system to ensure services will not be suspended.

A source from the government explained that it was in a better position now to introduce flexible working hours for civil servants, instead of an across-the-board work-from-home rule, as it had secured enough supply of masks for government employees.

But the Hong Kong Civil Servants General Union, which represents about 20,000 people, sent an open letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Friday, urging the city’s leader to allow civil servants to work from home as soon as possible. It also asked the government to test staff providing essential or urgent services for free.

“Civil servants interact with many citizens to provide public services every day. The recent rise in the number of infected civil servants shows that cutting off the chain of transmission and further tightening infection prevention measures … is of great importance to prevent further outbreaks in the community,” the letter said.

“[We] urge the government to resolutely adjust its strategy in response to the current severe epidemic situation.”

Hong Kong recorded 58 new Covid-19 infections and an additional death on Friday, bringing the city’s total to 1,713 cases and 11 related fatalities.

At least 10 civil servants have recently been confirmed as infected, including employees in the Immigration Department and the Customs and Excise Department.

Explaining why the administration did not introduce an across-the-board work-from-home arrangement for civil servants, a government source said authorities noted that some members of the public, including the business sector, complained about the disruption of public services when the government introduced such a measure from late January to early May.

“Some people were unhappy with the suspension of public services such as renewal of driving licences and submission of building plans when civil servants in relevant government departments were told to work from home,” the source said.

“We need to take into account the possible impact on members of the public before resuming an across-the-board work-from-home arrangement for civil servants,” the source said, adding that the views of the business sector were not the government’s primary consideration.

During the first wave of Covid-19 infections, the administration ordered most of the city’s 180,000 civil servants who were not providing essential or urgent services to work from home from January 29. Many private organisations subsequently followed suit. But following initial signs that the spread of the respiratory disease had been contained, some public employees returned to the office in early March, only to be told again to work from home from March 23.

All government departments have resumed services since early May after the coronavirus pandemic eased.

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