A restaurant in Tseung Kwan O in Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

The number of bookings to get vaccinations in Hong Kong has increased in the past two days after the government said on Monday that vaccinated people would enjoy more convenience at restaurants and entertainment premises from April 29.

According to the government’s “vaccine bubble” scheme, those who had their first dose of vaccine will be allowed to sit at a table with up to six people, instead of four people, in “clean zones” at restaurants and can also extend their dining hours from 10pm to midnight.

They will be able to go to bars, karaoke lounges, party venues, bathhouses, mahjong parlors and nightclubs when these places reopen on April 29 and when all their staff have received their first dose of vaccine.

Although the new measures seem to discriminate against non-vaccinated people, the strategy has helped accelerate Hong Kong’s vaccination programs in the last two days.

The number of online bookings for Covid vaccines increased to 16,800 on Monday and 22,900 on Tuesday, compared with 8,300 on Sunday and 9,700 on Saturday, said the government.

As of Tuesday, a total of 918,700 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered in Hong Kong. Of those, 615,300 have received their first dose, with about 355,500 receiving the Sinovac vaccine and about 259,800 receiving the BioNTech vaccine. About 303,400 people have received their second doses.

On Tuesday, 13,200 people received the Sinovac vaccine, while 27,300 people had the BioNTech shot. In Hong Kong, many people have adopted a wait-and-see approach with vaccinations due to concerns about possible side effects.

The Health Department confirmed media reports on Sunday that a 58-year-old employee of a contractor at the Drainage Services Department suffered from shortness of breath and fainted in the office on April 8. He was certified dead by paramedics in the evening on the same day.

Health workers post signs at a Covid-19 community vaccination center in Kowloon. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

The Health Department said the deceased was a smoker and had received the Sinovac vaccine on March 23, 16 days before his death.

On Sunday, the government also said a 35-year-old woman suffered a severe allergic reaction marked by a rash and shortness of breath after receiving the BioNTech vaccine on March 15. She was sent to the intensive care unit on the same day but discharged on March 18. Medical experts said the case was rare.

So far 16 Covid vaccine recipients have died in Hong Kong, with 14 of them getting the Sinovac vaccine and two receiving the BioNTech. The government’s advisory panel on Covid vaccines said there was no evidence that the cases were related to the vaccines, but added they would continue to investigate each case.

William Chui, the President of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong, said there was a long way to go for Hong Kong’s vaccination rate to reach that of Israel, in which 57% of its population had received the jabs. Chui said Israel, which has a population of 9 million, had three nationwide lockdowns last year after 830,000 people were infected and 6,300 people died of the coronavirus.

He said the country had successfully controlled the epidemic with vaccines.

The Society of Hospital Pharmacists suggested that the government increase the transparency of its vaccination programs by announcing the abnormal cases as early as possible and disclosing the statistics of vaccine recipients. It said authorities could invite celebrities to share their experiences of inoculations and connect with the public through social media.

Although the “incentives” proposed by the government have helped boost the number of vaccination bookings, it has remained questionable whether they can be realized.

The first version of social distancing in Hong Hong restaurants. Photo: AFP/EyePress

Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said it would be very difficult to set up “clean zones” at restaurants for vaccinated customers as the zones should have separate ventilation systems and service staff. Leung said most restaurants did not have the resources or space to meet those requirements.

Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a specialist in infectious diseases, said it was unfair that the government urged Hong Kong people to get the jabs but would not require mainlanders to do the same before visiting Hong Kong. Tsang said if mainland visitors could not go to bars and karaoke lounges and dine at restaurants until midnight in Hong Kong, it might create some disputes.

Simon Wong Kit-Lung, chairperson and chief executive of LH Group, a restaurant chain in Hong Kong, said he believed that most restaurants would choose not to join the “vaccine bubble” scheme as there was no way for restaurant owners to force all their employees to get vaccinated. Wong said employees had the freedom to decide whether they should have the vaccines.

Equal Opportunities Commission chairman Ricky Chu said Tuesday that people had already started to file complaints based on allegations of unequal treatment against those who have yet to receive vaccinations – including some who said their jobs are at risk. Chu said vaccination-based discrimination was just as harmful as other kinds of prejudice.

“We have to make it clear to the society that any sort of unequal treatment or discrimination can be dangerous, and it only serves to split the society, and it does nobody any good, particularly in preventing the pandemic and towards the recovery of Hong Kong as a whole,” Chu said.

“If anybody thinks that he or she is subject to some discriminatory treatment which is unreasonable, even under the circumstances of preventing the pandemic, they can always come to us.”

Read: HK waves carrot and stick to boost vaccinations