By Jerome Taylor
Hong Kong announced it was closing all but two land crossings with the Chinese mainland on Monday to slow the spread of a deadly new coronavirus as medics staged strikes calling for the border to be completely sealed.
The semi-autonomous financial centre has 15 confirmed cases of the disease, most brought from the mainland where the epidemic began and has so far killed more than 360 people.
On Monday afternoon city leader Carrie Lam said all land crossings would be closed at midnight except for two bridges, the first connecting Hong Kong to Shenzhen and the second linking it with Zhuhai and casino hub Macau.
The city’s airport — one of the world’s busiest — would remain open to mainlanders, although there are already restrictions on people from central Hubei province where the epidemic began.
Lam said the latest closures — which came after four crossings were shuttered last week — would reduce the number of Chinese mainlanders and allow officials to focus resources on two land entry points as well as the airport.
“The numbers will come down,” she told reporters.
She reiterated her view that a complete closure of the border would be impractical, economically damaging and discriminatory given the close links between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Medics walk out
But calls for a full border closure are growing, fuelled by a historical mistrust of the mainland after nearly 300 Hong Kongers were killed in the 2003 SARS outbreak which was initially covered up by Beijing.
On Monday, hundreds of medical workers walked off their jobs for the start of a five-day strike.
The first batch were “non-essential” staff but the union has said more strikers, including frontline doctors and nurses, will walk out on Tuesday after they rejected the government’s latest move.
The city’s Hospital Authority, which employs 75,000 people, warned that half of pre-booked operations would be cancelled but the strike appeared to have little impact on emergency procedures.
Lam said her decision to close more border crossings was not sparked by the strikes, which she described as an “irrational act”.
Politically precarious time
Some 13,400 mainlanders entered Hong Kong on Saturday, down from 27,800 three days earlier before the partial checkpoint closures were announced.
More than 100,000 Hong Kong residents are also returning to the city each day, 56,000 via land crossings with the mainland.
Criticism of the Lam administration’s decision not to seal the border has come from opposition lawmakers and some medics — but also from her own pro-Beijing camp.
The virus outbreak comes at a politically precarious time for Lam who has record-low approval ratings after deploying riot police to face down seven months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
Animosity towards Beijing and mainlanders has also risen steeply in recent years in lockstep with Hong Kongers pushing for democracy.
Many in Hong Kong feel an increasingly authoritarian Beijing is clamping down on the city’s freedoms.
And they also resent economic pressures caused by the influx of mainland migrants and day-trippers, something that has helped ramp up prices of everything from pharmacy goods to retail rents and housing.