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Authorities in Hong Kong said they would shut down the majority of border crossings with mainland China at midnight on Monday amid the expanding coronavirus epidemic, as thousands of medical staff went on strike over the government’s handling of the public health emergency.

Striking workers set up stalls on picket lines outside several government hospitals on Monday, allowing participating medical workers to register as being on strike.

One staff member in the physical therapy department at one hospital said half of the department’s staff had taken part.

Yu said the next phase of the strike will potentially involve some 9,000 medical staff from Tuesday through Friday.

A healthcare worker surnamed Choi said this strike was very different from a run-of-the-mill action, however.

“Usually, strike action is taken to fight for the personal rights and interests of employees, but this time our demands are very clear,” Choi said. “We want to see [the government] protect public health in Hong Kong.”

A striking worker surnamed Loh said a total border shutdown was the only way to stop the influx of people from the worst-hit areas of the epidemic in mainland China.

A patient surnamed Lee at the Tuen Mun Hospital said he supported the strike, which he blamed on “poor decision-making” by the government.

A patient surnamed Woo said he had to wait longer than usual for treatment on Monday, but said he believes a total border shutdown is necessary to protect Hong Kong’s seven million people from the coronavirus.

Flights still coming in

The government on Monday announced it would shut all land border crossings except for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the Shenzhen Bay crossing, but the airport will still receive incoming flights from mainland China, the government said.

Chief executive Carrie Lam said it was impossible for the city to completely shut down the border, because many people in Hong Kong have a “genuine and legtimate” need to travel back and forth across it.

All ferry services coming into Hong Kong have also been suspended, she told a news conference on Monday.

But Lam said the additional closures were unconnected to the strike by medical staff in government hospitals.

“The measures to further control the flow of people across our border are in the same vein as we have done before, but a bit stronger,” Lam said.

“They have nothing to do with the five-day strike threat by some Hospital Authority staff,” she said. “Anyone who thinks that they can use extreme tactics like this to intimidate the [Hong Kong] government or the Hospital Authority won’t succeed.”

But journalists asked if the “stronger” measures were in the interests of the people of Hong Kong, given that government figures showed that more than 60 percent of the 11,715 people who arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China on Sunday did so via the three border points that are to remain open.

Hong Kong had reported 15 confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus by Monday.

Partial victory claimed

Winnie Yu, who heads the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, claimed a partial victory for the strike action, however.

“As we have just seen, our action forced the government to take steps to close more border crossings,” Yu said. “But they left three border crossings open, and nearly 60 percent of inbound people came across at these crossings.”

“So there is still no sign that the government has any sincerity about implementing border controls,” Yu said.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong said the government’s moves are confusing, and called on Lam to respond to widespread public support for a total border shutdown.

Reported by Gao Feng and Lu Xi for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung and Tam Siu-yin for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.