Dear Fellow Engineers,
I wish you and your family members are safe under the serious threat of COVID-19.
While the coronavirus outbreak in the mainland has slowed down and under control, the recent rapid increase of confirmed infection cases in the western countries is extremely alarming. With a large number of Hong Kong residents returning from overseas countries in which the epidemic situation is severe, imported cases in our city has surged and some clusters with community-acquired cases are detected.
To combat resurgence of COVID-19 infection, the HKSAR Government has put in place regulations to enforce tougher social distancing. Group gatherings with more than four people in public places are prohibited, except twelve types of gatherings including those related to transportation, for performing governmental function, at place of work for the purposes of work, and of persons living in the same household, etc. Restaurants can only serve half their capacity of customers. Each table needs to be separated by at least 1.5m, and only four people can be seated at a table. Leisure venues such as cinemas, fitness centres and amusement game centres, etc., are closed. In the meantime, these measures are effective for 14 days. Please be reminded to observe these regulations to safeguard yourselves, your families and your colleagues.
The workload of the engineering and construction sectors has been seriously affected by the filibustering at the LegCo in the past few years. Our livelihood is further affected by the coronavirus. The unemployment rate of the construction industry is higher than other industries. The average unemployment rate in Hong Kong increased to 3.7% in February, and that in the construction industry rose to 6.8%, with underemployment rate reaching 6.2% !
I have described that the industry is facing three major operational risks of “works chain breaking, supply chain breaking, and capital chain breaking.” I urged the Government to improve the approval process of various applications related to the construction and engineering projects, to be more flexible in the public works lead-time, to provide advanced operating fund at the start of new public work contracts, and to support anti coronavirus measures of companies and workers through the Construction Industry Anti-Epidemic Fund.
On 21 Feb, Finance Committee of the LegCo approved funding application for the $30 billion Anti-epidemic Fund, of which $710 million is allocated to support qualified companies and workers in the construction industry. The Development Bureau has also accepted the suggestion to provide funding support to the companies at the start of new public work contracts, with 2% (not more than $30 million) for contractors, and 5% (not more than $5 million) for consultants.
On 1 April, the Development Bureau announced that the support measures under the Anti-epidemic Fund will be extended to cover construction workers engaged in small-scale works outside construction sites. Each eligible worker will receive a subsidy of $1,000. Each eligible SME consultants will receive $20,000.
I have voiced out strongly to the Government the threats that our industry faces in the crisis of the pandemic. I emphasized the need to support the small and medium size engineering companies in the next round of relief measures. I urged the Government to subsidize a portion of the salary payment to employees in the construction industry, and especially to support the employment of young professionals. I emphasized that the Administration should review the status of various government funds, and use them wisely in this critical moment. I also urged the Government to make clearer guideline in general granting of Extension of Time (EOT) of public works projects; to support the contractors with costs, especially overhead costs, associated with EOT periods; to suspend the Construction Industry levy and the Pneumoconiosis Compensation Fund levy for a period of time, say, one year; and to expedite the use of the accumulated funds from these levies to support the industry.
The Government ought to provide effective and timely supports to help the engineering and construction industry ride out the storm and gear up for a brighter tomorrow.
1. Visited construction sites of four quarantine camps
In early March, together with officials from different works departments, I visited the construction sites of four quarantine camps. They are located at Junior Police Call training centre in Pat Heung, Penny’s Bay, Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village, and Sai Kung Outdoor Recreation Centre. There are substantial infrastructural works to carry out at these sites. The temporary living units are built from containers, adopting innovative Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) method. Each unit is provided with toilet, bathroom, air conditioner, and basic furniture. The four centers can provide about 1,300 quarantine units. Some more units can be built at Penny's Bay in late phase. As an appreciation to the teams working day and night to help Hong Kong fight against the coronavirus, I brought and distributed face masks to the front-line construction staff at the sites.
2. Face masks donation to the engineering staff in the universities
With the threat of COVID-19 outbreak, the normal teaching programs in the local universities are seriously disturbed, and students are learning from home. However, many engineering staff still need to work in the campus, including those in the estates office, in the laboratories, and at the construction sites to look after the various upgrading and expansion projects. I met representatives from the University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the City University of Hong Kong, and delivered face masks and hand sanitizers to support the respective engineering teams. These masks and sanitizers are from donors who wish to show their care and support to practitioners in the frontlines of various engineering sectors.
3. Public work projects approved in the FC
On 11 March, a total funding of HK$22.5 billion was approved by the FC for the block allocations under the Capital Works Reserve Fund. This covers more than 10,000 small scale work projects. On 13 March, a funding request of HK$1.8 billion was approved for the site formation and infrastructure works for the first phrase public housing development at Wang Chau, Yuen Long. On 20 March, an allocation of HK$18.8 billion was approved for the infrastructural works for West Kowloon Cultural District, including the integrated basement construction.
4. LegCo approved the proposed resolution under the public finance ordinance
At the LegCo meeting on 25 March, a proposed resolution under the Public Finance Ordinance was passed to give for a sum not exceeding $215,865,713,000 to be charged on the general revenue for expenditure on the services of the Government in respect of the financial year commencing on 1 April 2020.