Areas of Jordan district in Hong Kong are placed under lockdown on January 23 for mass testing. Photo; HW Chan/EYEPRESS/AFP

The Hong Kong government has been urged by medical experts, travel agents and lawmakers to issue “vaccination passports” to encourage people to participate in the vaccination program in March. 

Only 46% of a sample of 1,000 people surveyed this month were willing to get the jabs, according to University of Hong Kong medical school researchers. The figure was lower than 63% in a poll in November.

People were concerned about the safety of the shots and any side effects after hearing negative news about vaccinations in foreign countries, Gabriel Leung, head of the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong and former Undersecretary for Food and Health, said. It was not unusual for people to get cold feet as the launch of the vaccination program was getting closer, Leung said.

Younger people and those with higher education and income levels were less receptive to Covid vaccines while males and elderly people showed a higher acceptance.

He said Hong Kong people had done well in the anti-epidemic battle in the past year, given that some people mistrusted the government after the social unrest in 2019.

“When you’ve got that kind of chasm in society… that kind of deep mistrust of the authorities following the social unrest, and you have Covid, we should have been doing much worse than we have done,” Leung said.

The poll’s participants have more faith in Germany’s BioNTech vaccine, which has an acceptance rate of 56%. The acceptance rate for the AstraZeneca jab was 35% while that for China’s Sinovac vaccine came in last, at 30%.

However, Benjamin Cowling, head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong’s medical school, said the findings did not necessarily mean the inoculation rate would be low as many people adopted a wait-and-see approach.

“I think there are a lot of other people who will be waiting to see what happens, and may well get the vaccine in due course,” he said.

A man receives a Covid-19 jab in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

The Hong Kong government originally planned to start its vaccination program this month but it was postponed to March as Sinovac has not yet released its phase-3 clinical trial statistics. The first batch of BioNTech vaccines would arrive in Hong Kong in late February.

Leung called on the government to remain open and scientific about the vaccination program to earn people’s trust. He said people would be more interested in getting the jabs if they were told they would face fewer travel restrictions.

Vaccination Credential Initiative

Authorities in many countries have been calling for a global standard of “vaccination passports” for vaccinated travelers to be exempt from some quarantine requirements.

On January 14, United States tech giants Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle, together with healthcare firm Mayo Clinic, announced a coalition known as the Vaccination Credential Initiative (VCI), which would enable individuals to obtain an encrypted digital copy of their immunisation credentials that ccould be stored in their digital wallets.

The VCI would allow people “to safely return to travel, work, school, and life, while protecting their data privacy,” said Paul Meyer, chief executive of The Commons Project, a non-profit public trust funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and a member of the VCI coalition. On Monday, the global standardization of “vaccination passports” was set as an agenda at the World Economic Forum.

Health workers at a Covid testing center in Hong Kong on January 27. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

Perry Yiu Pak-leung, deputy general manager of China Travel Service (Hong Kong), wrote in an article on January 21 that the Hong Kong government should encourage people to get the jabs by issuing “vaccination passports” and discuss the topic with other countries. Yiu said such moves would help boost the city’s outbound travel activities and tourism sectors.

Some lawmakers have urged the government to provide incentives to the public to get vaccinated.

Leung Che-cheung, a legislator of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, last month suggested the government give HK$5,000 (US$644.9) to everyone who got the jabs.

He said it was not satisfactory that only one million out of 7.5 million people in the territory had participated in the government’s mass virus test program last September. He said the vaccination program would fail if it could only attract a similar number.

Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said the government would promote the program and clear up public doubts about the vaccines. Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently rejected the idea of paying those who got vaccinated.

The Center for Health Protection said 39 cases were recorded on Wednesday, including one imported case from South Korea and 38 local infections. Of the local cases, 20 were untraceable. More than 40 people tested positive preliminarily on Thursday.

On Tuesday, six workers of a congee, or rice porrige, shop at United Building on Bulkeley Street in Hung Hom, were found to be infected. On Wednesday, one more staff member tested positive.

Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Infection, said it was important to find the customers who visited the shop.

“The transmission didn’t happen in the past two days, but a week ago perhaps. Many customers could’ve been infected already,” Ho said. “It’s a high-risk cluster that could lead to another community outbreak.”

Ho said the epidemic situation in the city was worrying as recent information showed that the virus remained active in the community. He said as many people would go out and meet relatives during Chinese New Year, this could trigger a further rise in cases.

Read: Hong Kong’s tardy vaccination drive under fire