Hong Kong Sees Highest Unemployment Rate in 10 Years, Extends Social Distancing Measures

Hong Kong’s jobless rate rose for a sixth straight month in March to the highest level since October 2010 as restrictions to control the coronavirus outbreak continue to pressure the city’s battered economy.

The unemployment rate increased to 4.2% for the January-to-March period, higher than the median estimate of 4.0% among economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The jump extended the longest stretch of increases since the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The underemployment rate climbed to 2.1%, the highest in almost a decade.

Year-on-year declines in total employment and the labor force widened further to 3.6% and 2.2% respectively, both the highest on record, the government said in a release.

Hong Kong is extending social distancing restrictions for another 14 days as a precautionary measure, even as the financial hub sees a drop off in daily new Covid-19 infections.

“This is not the time to let down our guard, or our efforts would go to waste,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said as she announced the move Tuesday before a meeting of the city’s Executive Council. The measures were due to expire Thursday.

Hong Kong — unlike other similar sized urban centers, including Singapore and New York — has so far managed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The city reported no new daily cases Monday for the first time since March 5, after a week straight of new cases in the single digits. It hasn’t seen a death from the virus since mid-March.

Lam said the government was trying to strike a balance between ensuring the success of the city’s existing public health measures and making sure its economy didn’t suffer too much damage. She said Hong Kong’s stimulus package, which was announced earlier this month and is worth about HK$137.5 billion ($17.7 billion), gave her the confidence to extend the social distancing restrictions.

“This is indeed a very difficult balancing act,” she said. “On the one side we want to fight the virus and keep our citizens safe. But on the other hand, if the city is dead and people don’t have normal business activities, that’s also very difficult.”

Hong Kong will also remove its 50% cap on restaurant seating capacity starting Friday, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said separately Tuesday. Other restrictions on eateries — including setting tables at least 1.5 meters apart and having no more than four people seated together at one table — remain in place until May 7, Chan said.

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