Police have been accused of being irresponsible and putting retaliation before Hongkongers’ interests for suspending round-the-clock services at their posts in two public hospitals, though sources said the steps were taken because officers have been verbally abused and were told they were not welcome.

Tensions between the police and anti-extradition protesters have reached boiling point, with hundreds of frontline officers and their families complaining of a public hate campaign against them, including posting their personal information online.

A petition by medical and legal professionals on Sunday, who accused the police of harassing hospital staff and arresting extradition bill protesters seeking treatment, even prompted the Junior Police Officers’ Association (JPOA) to say the Hospital Authority may as well cancel all police posts in every hospital.

On Wednesday, a police spokesman confirmed that officers originally stationed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei, and the Yan Chai Hospital in Tsuen Wan, have been instructed to just patrol in the vicinity.

“But they will return to the police posts regularly to provide services to those in need,” he said, telling the hospitals to dial 999 or contact nearby police stations if they need help.

The spokesman did not explain why the new arrangement was in place, but a force insider said it was because some hospital staff had indicated that the police were not welcome.

He added that officers would return to the two hospitals every few hours for a short while.

Another source said the new arrangement was made in the two hospitals because officers stationed there had been verbally abused.

A third police source said one incident involved a nurse who took an arrested person into a room for treatment, but shut out the escorting officer.

“The officer knocked on the door for one minute before the nurse opened it,” the source said. “He explained he had a duty to keep a close watch on the suspect, but the nurse told him off and called him a ‘rogue cop’.”

The officer also claimed to have heard someone call him a dog when he left the hospital.

A spokesman for the Hospital Authority, operator of the city’s public hospitals, said the authority had already expressed its concerns to the force.

Earlier this month, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds at protesters angry at the government’s plan to pass an extradition bill that could see anyone in Hong Kong sent to mainland China or other jurisdictions the city does not have an extradition deal with.

On Sunday, a group of about 80 medical and legal practitioners, together with six professional bodies, signed a petition criticising police behaviour at the hospitals, and said at least five demonstrators were arrested at the medical facilities.

The group said some officers were walking around the hospitals looking for protesters, while others asked medical workers to give them the personal information of those being treated.

In response, in a statement headlined “Behave Yourself”, the JPOA said people should come forward with evidence or apologise to the police for “trumped-up” accusations.

It even called on the Hospital Authority to cancel all police posts in every hospital if staff thought officers had been troubling them.

The association also claimed the police are exempted from the city’s privacy laws as officers carry out their investigations.

“If every criminal declined to provide information because they wanted to protect their privacy, wouldn’t Hong Kong become a paradise for criminals?” the statement said.

The statement was issued after the police said last week that the personal information of more than 400 officers, and about 100 of their family members, had been posted online.

Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, a urologist, accused the police of “throwing tantrums”.

“Now you’re challenging me, so I would not work with you,” Kwok said.

He called on the government to intervene or else the force would be able to do whatever it wants.

Kwok said it was insulting for the association to call on medical personnel to “behave”.

“We have only one duty, which is to save lives. We are not under the police,” Kwok said.

Lau Hoi-man, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Allied Health Professionals and Nurses Association, who signed the petition, said the police were being irresponsible for suspending their services at the two posts, and were putting retaliation before the interests of the public.

“They are still getting paid for not doing their jobs. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

Lau accused the officers at the hospital posts of often being unhelpful, and cited a case when the police declined to intervene when a patient was hitting nurses.

The police told the nurse to contact hospital security guards instead, Lau added.

Barrister Chris Ng Chung-luen, who also signed the petition, said the police misunderstood their power.

He said the privacy exemption cited by the association was not exercised by the officers themselves, but by the hospitals. That means if hospital staff decline to pass on patients’ information to officers, police cannot force them to do so.

“Otherwise, the police would have too much power in preventing crime,” said Ng.

The new hospital police post arrangements came less than 12 hours after assistant commissioner of police, support wing Rebecca Lam Hiu-tong said that “some colleagues working in the hospitals recently reported that they have been experiencing impoliteness at work, including verbal abuse”.

“The police management express regret with regard to the behaviour of individual health care providers,” she said in a video clip posted on the police’s Facebook page on Tuesday night.

In that video, she said she had personally contacted the senior management of the Hospital Authority on Tuesday to discuss the case.

“The Hospital Authority expressed understanding and will follow up the incident,” she said.

Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei

Article originally appeared in South China Morning Post on 26 June 2019