Early approval of targeted relief
COVID-19 hits all age groups
Seek medical treatment without delay
Take oath and bear allegiance to HKSAR
20 December 2020
The Government has proposed an injection of $6.4 billion into the Anti-epidemic Fund (AEF) to provide targeted relief to businesses and individuals hard hit by the tightening of social distancing measures. Of the proposed injection, $5.5 billion will be used for launching 19 subsidy schemes1, while about $900 million will be earmarked for contingency. These, coupled with the approximately $600 million relief announced in the Chief Executive (CE)'s Policy Address for the hard-hit tourism industry, will deliver a substantial package of precise and targeted support.
The funding application will be scrutinised by the Finance Committee of the Legislative Council at a special meeting tomorrow (December 21). I will attend the meeting with relevant principal officials to listen to Members' views and brief them on the proposal in the hope of obtaining early funding approval. Bureaux and departments responsible for the subsidy schemes will streamline the application procedures and expedite the approval process where possible so that the relief can reach the hard-hit sectors soonest possible.
Injection higher than previous round
This round of $5.5 billion AEF injection is almost double the third round of about $2.8 billion announced in September for implementing similar measures. This is in consideration that social distancing measures implemented in traditional peak shopping season would deal a heavy blow to many businesses and individuals who might have little time to adjust to the anti-epidemic measures, and it is therefore imperative for us to provide them with extra assistance. Businesses such as catering, fitness centres, beauty parlours and cinemas will be covered in the new round of the AEF.
Targeted relief to achieve optimal use of public resources
When our economy is badly hit by the epidemic, it is only understandable that there would be calls for extra relief to be given by the Government. However, the Government can hardly satisfy all demands with limited public resources, and can only focus on helping those most in need.
The Government is mindful of the strain that any further relief package may put on Hong Kong's public finance. To date, the Government has committed over $300 billion, equivalent to about 11% of our Gross Domestic Product, through the three rounds of AEF injection and the implementation of the relief measures announced in the 2020-21 Budget. The level of fiscal reserves is forecast to drop to some $800 billion by the end of this financial year, equivalent to around 12 to 13 months' government spending, and the Government's budget is expected to reach a record high deficit of over $300 billion in the 2020-21 financial year. Amid the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, it is necessary for the Government to exercise fiscal prudence and maintain a healthy level of fiscal reserves to cope with both known and unforeseen needs.
Never underestimate the risk
The weather in Hong Kong turned considerably colder last week. We should all take extra care and keep warm particularly when we are also faced with the epidemic. It should be noted that at the early stage of infection, many confirmed COVID-19 patients only have mild symptoms or those resembling a common cold or influenza, while some may show no symptoms at all. Members of the public should never treat their illness lightly and should seek medical attention promptly when feeling unwell.
The COVID-19 epidemic has been going on for nearly a year. As at 16 December 2020, the total number of local confirmed cases has reached 7 804, representing about 1 040 infected cases per million population. As at 13 December 2020, there were about 350 confirmed patients who had been treated in intensive care units. Two-thirds of these patients are below the age of 70. 19 of them are even below 40.
Statistics have shown that people aged 15 to 39 account for 31% of the total population in Hong Kong, and the percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases in this age group is as high as 35%. While those aged 80 and above account for only 4% of the confirmed cases, they represent nearly 55% of the total deaths, much higher than the overall average of 2%.
Recently, there have been confirmed patients who were admitted to hospitals in critical condition. There were also fatal cases involving younger patients aged below 60. Young patients should never delay medical attention simply because they are showing mild symptoms. Instead, they should promptly seek medical advice and take the COVID-19 test when feeling unwell. I call on members of the public, regardless of age, to fight the virus together and stay at home as far as possible to protect yourselves and your families.
Early testing for early diagnosis
COVID-19 will not vanish without effective treatment and vaccines. Even though vaccination will begin next year, it is barely possible to completely curb the spread of the virus within a short period of time, and targeted strategic virus testing remains an important anti-epidemic measure. The Government has adopted a multi-pronged approach to enhance surveillance and testing, and continues its work on specimen collection through various means. It is estimated that a maximum of about 80 000 specimens can be collected for testing each day.
Five designated quarantine hotels operating in advance
Five local hotels have started operating as designated quarantine hotels two days ago (December 18) to receive only travellers arriving from countries other than China for compulsory quarantine. Inspections by the Government's dedicated teams have found these hotels operating smoothly so far. With full implementation of the Designated Quarantine Hotel Scheme on December 22, there will be a total of 36 hotels designated exclusively for the quarantine of travellers arriving from countries other than China. To reduce the risk of spreading the virus to the community, these hotels will take strict steps to ensure that the persons undergoing quarantine will not leave their rooms or receive visitors during the quarantine period. Under “closed-loop management”, these persons, on arrival at the airport, will be taken to the designated quarantine hotels by designated transport to further reduce their contact with the local community.
Higher penalty and robust enforcement
The fixed penalty for violating the regulations on group gatherings and mask wearing has been increased from $2,000 to $5,000 starting from December 11. Over 118 tickets, each charging a penalty of $5,000, were issued from December 11 to December 18. Robust enforcement will continue. That said, I must point out that while the increased penalty may achieve greater deterrent effect, statutory restrictions and requirements alone will not suffice if we are to rapidly contain the outbreak. Of vital importance is the co-operation and self-discipline of the general public. Everyone should avoid social activities as far as possible, stay vigilant and maintain personal as well as environmental hygiene at this critical time.
I would particularly like to remind those carrying on catering business that they are required to display the poster containing the “LeaveHomeSafe” venue QR code at the entrance or a conspicuous location of their premises. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has stepped up inspections on catering premises. From December 2 to December 18, 33 verbal warnings were issued and prosecution was initiated against nine persons for failing to properly display the poster at the premises.
Upholding the Basic Law and bearing allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as a matter of course
Last week, two oath-taking ceremonies took place where all under-secretaries, political assistants, permanent secretaries, heads of departments and directorate civil servants at the rank of D6 or above swore to uphold the Basic Law and bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) under the witness of the CE. I was present on both occasions and would like to share some of my thoughts here.
The ceremonies may seem rather brief, but the short oath and the declaration document bear great and far-reaching significance and carry a symbolic meaning. The requirement for civil servants to take an oath or make a declaration is a genuine manifestation of the expectations of and responsibilities of civil servants, which will further safeguard and promote the core values that should be upheld by civil servants, and ensure the effective governance of the HKSAR Government.
Under the Basic Law and the Civil Service Code, it has consistently been the duty and responsibility of civil servants to uphold the Basic Law, bear allegiance to the HKSAR of the People's Republic of China (PRC), be dedicated to their duties and be responsible to the HKSAR Government. This is naturally what the country and society expect and require of them. Article 6 of the Law of the People's Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which came into effect on June 30 this year, also stipulates that a resident of the HKSAR who stands for election or assumes public office shall confirm in writing or take an oath to uphold the Basic Law and swear allegiance to the HKSAR of the PRC in accordance with the law.
Regarding new appointees to the civil service, the Civil Service Bureau (CSB) issued a circular in October this year, requiring all civil servants joining the HKSAR Government on or after 1 July to take an oath or sign a declaration as one of the conditions for appointment. So far, over 3 000 new appointees have completed this procedure. The CSB will require all civil servants to make a declaration to confirm that they will uphold the Basic Law and bear allegiance to the HKSAR. Details will be announced in due course.
The epidemic has been raging across the globe, and Hong Kong is no exception. At this unprecedented time, our anti-epidemic work has become all the more challenging. Nonetheless, under the leadership of the Chief Executive, all bureaux and departments will continue to stand united and work steadfastly to help Hong Kong overcome the challenge and start afresh.