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Citi, UBS pause Hong Kong return-to-office plans as cases jump

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Global banks including Citigroup Inc and UBS Group AG are suspending their return-to-office plans in Hong Kong after the city reported a daily record of more than 100 new coronavirus cases.

[HONG KONG] Global banks including Citigroup Inc and UBS Group AG are suspending their return-to-office plans in Hong Kong after the city reported a daily record of more than 100 new coronavirus cases.

Citigroup, which had already asked as many as 70 per cent of staff to work from home last week, is now asking most people to do so starting Monday, according to an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg News. JPMorgan Chase & Co and Goldman Sachs Group Inc are also requesting workers stay away from the office, while UBS estimates about 60 per cent will work from home, triple the level of two weeks ago.

"We work to data not dates and the safety of our staff and clients is our top priority," said James Griffiths, Citigroup's Hong Kong-based spokesman.

Hong Kong's third wave is its worst ever, with about 500 infections confirmed in just two weeks. The aggressive resurgence in the city comes after a period that saw residents return to normal life, and the high share of cases of unknown origins in the new outbreak suggests that hidden chains of transmission have been festering for some time.The government is scrambling to put in place tightened measures after a period of easing. Masks are now mandatory in indoor public spaces and on public transport, while restaurant restrictions and gym and bar closures have been extended for another week until the end of July.

"The situation is really severe and there is no sign that it is under control," Chief Executive Carrie Lam said. "To combat the pandemic, I hereby urge citizens to be patient in order to contain this."

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The pull back underscores the challenges for global banks as they try to resume operations in parts of Asia where the rate of new cases had been slowing. Bankers in financial hubs including Shanghai and Singapore have been slowly returning to their offices, in contrast to London and New York where most staff remain at home.

Goldman Sachs had been using a split-team approach with as many as 50 per cent of Asia staff working from the office, Chief Executive Officer David Solomon said last week. The UK figure is at 15 per cent, while in New York only a small number have returned, he said.

The New York-based bank is now asking all Hong Kong employees to work from home except for office-critical staff, compared with about 50 per cent as recently as last week and none last month, according to a bank spokesman. Barclays Plc, which had as many as 60 per cent of staff in their Hong Kong offices before the latest surge, has seen that number drop below 50 per cent since Wednesday, a spokeswoman said. Citigroup had about half its staff at home before the bump last week.

HSBC Holdings Plc and Standard Chartered Plc, which are also big employers in Hong Kong, urged their staff to work from home last week given the spike in locally-transmitted virus cases.

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