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When SARS struck, HSBC sent 50 virus-free staff home to create a reserve talent pool in case the outbreak worsened.

Hong Kong banks warn staff about coronavirus but stop short of mainland travel ban

Banks in Hong Kong are keeping a close eye on the local and regional spread of the coronavirus and some have issued general health and travel guidance to staff as they seek to avoid a repeat of the 2013 SARS crisis, which crippled the city’s banking sector.

The Chinese government today suspended all travel in and out of Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the coronavirus, but some banks imposed their own bans on Wuhan trips a few days ago. “In view of the current situation, we are advising our staff to defer all business travel to Wuhan until further notice,” says a spokesperson for Standard Chartered. “We will monitor the situation closely for further extension of the travel suspension,” she adds.

A Citi spokesperson says his bank is monitoring the coronavirus outbreak and will “advise staff as necessary”. Deutsche Bank is “communicating frequently with staff with precautionary advice around personal and environmental hygiene and travel safety”, according to a representative of the German firm.

We understand that Nomura has not issued specific travel restrictions, but it is keeping tabs on the outbreak with help from International SOS, the medical and security assistance firm. Nomura has asked employees to seek advice from International SOS if they have Hong Kong-related concerns, or concerns about the availability of medical services during business or personal trips to China.

A UBS spokesperson says the Swiss bank has an “internal pandemic website up and running” and is “following WHO directives and also talking to International SOS”.

Banks in Hong Kong have not yet restricted travel to Chinese cities other than Wuhan, so the impact of the virus on their staff has so far been limited – with the exception of markets employees having to deal with falling Asian stock markets. “Wuhan isn’t exactly a financial epicenter,” says a Hong Kong-based trader. An HSBC banker in Hong Kong, whose job involves frequent mainland travel, says he has not been told to cut down his business trips to Shanghai and Beijing.

Behind the scenes, however, financial sector insiders say banks’ C-suites and operational risk teams are putting contingency plans in place, in case the coronavirus takes hold in a major way in Hong Kong. So far there have been two confirmed cases in the city. HSBC has already been caught up in a coronavirus scare after rumors circulated this week that a Kowloon-based employee had been infected. Online images showed cleaners wearing protective gear and an evacuated floor, but the bank says the person involved had caught influenza A instead.

In Hong Kong, banks’ responses to the coronavirus are driven by memories of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which killed more than 700 people in the mainland, Hong Kong and elsewhere and inflicted major damage on Hong Kong’s economy, stock market and banking industry. “After the SARS debacle, most financial institutions are now on high alert,” says Benjamin Quinlan, a former UBS banker who now runs a Hong Kong finance consultancy.

SARS also took its toll on everyday working life at banks in Hong Kong. HSBC said in 2003 that it had introduced emergency measures to combat the virus, such as disinfecting its Hong Kong buildings, providing face masks to employees and discouraging non-essential travel. It also sent home 50 virus-free Hong Kong staff to create a reserve talent pool in case the outbreak worsened. Other banks in Hong Kong also made sales staff work from home during SARS and split up their Asian trading teams to avoid too many people working in the same location. These type of measures could be applied in 2020, but only in the event of a severe worsening of coronavirus outbreak, say industry insiders.

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

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