Hong Kong should not follow the example of Singapore and abandon the “zero infections” goal if it wants to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland and Macau, two medical experts have said.
The Special Administrative Region was “nearly able” to resume travel with the mainland and Macau, but it recorded a few Covid-19 local infections in the past one month, said David Hui, chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a government adviser.
Hui added that the goal of herd immunity could not be secured even with a vaccination rate of 50%, given that tens of thousands of people in the United Kingdom were infected every day and 70% of its population had received a first dose of the vaccine.
Ho Pak-leung, a clinical associate professor at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said Singapore could give up its “zero infections” goal and loosen its anti-epidemic measures as the city-state had already had 60% of its population vaccinated.
Ho said as Hong Kong’s inoculation rate was relatively low, the potential launch of a travel bubble between the two financial hubs would create more public health risks to Hong Kong than to Singapore.
On June 24, Singapore’s Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung wrote in an op-ed in the Straits Times that the Lion City would scrap lockdowns and mass contact tracing and allow for a return to quarantine-free travel and the resumption of large gatherings.
“The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst. This means Covid-19 will very likely become endemic,” the three officials said, adding that with vaccinations, testing, treatment and social responsibility, the city could turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza.
“We will be able to travel again, at least to countries that have also controlled the virus and turned it into an endemic norm. We will recognize each other’s vaccination certificates. Travelers, especially those vaccinated, can get themselves tested before departure and be exempted from quarantine with a negative test upon arrival,” they said.
As of July 3, about 3.55 million people, or 62.3% of the population in Singapore, had received their first dose of Covid vaccines. A total of 2.16 million had received their second dose. The government said 75% of those aged 60 or above had already been inoculated. In a promotional video, it urged seniors to get the jabs.
In Hong Kong, about 2.37 million people, or 31.6% of the population, had received their first dose as of Sunday. Up to 1.59 million people had received their second dose.
Since Hong Kong’s private companies launched their lucky draw schemes in early June to encourage people to get vaccinated, the vaccination rate in the city has increased significantly. Last Friday, the number of people who received jabs recorded a high of 69,900, compared with about 15,000 per day a month ago.
Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said Sunday that Hong Kong’s inoculation rate would probably reach 50% by September, but more work needed to be done to encourage the public, especially elderly people and frontline workers, to get vaccinated.
“Fifty percent is not enough if we’re talking about building herd immunity. Many of our experts said at least it should be 70%,” Chan said.
Chan added that only a bit more than 10% of those aged between 60 and 69 had received jabs, compared with 70-80% in Singapore, the United States and Europe. She said it was unsatisfactory that less than 10% of people over 80 were vaccinated.
Infectious diseases expert Leung Chi-chiu said there had been an outbreak of the Delta variant in the UK and 80% of the population had received at least their first dose and 60% their second dose. Leung said it showed that vaccines could not stop virus transmission, but could significantly lower the death rate.
Leung said because only 5% of people in elderly care homes in Hong Kong had received the jabs, the city could face a fifth wave of the epidemic if any of the imported cases leaked into the community.
He said Hong Kong did not see any large-scale outbreaks last month because it had banned flights from high-risk countries such as the Philippines and India. However, he said Hong Kong would still see more imported cases as a lot of people would travel in the summer.
On Monday, the Hong Kong government reclassified the infection of a hotel cleaner as being “related to an imported case.”
The 41-year-old woman, who works part-time at the Bridal Tea House Hotel in Yau Ma Tei, tested positive last week. The case was previously categorized as a local infection with an unknown source.
The latest genetic sequencing results showed her infection was genetically linked to that of an Indonesian woman who had stayed in a room the hotel worker later cleaned, according to the Centre for Health Protection.
Prior to this, a local case involving a 27-year-old airport worker, which carried the L452R mutant strain, was reclassified as an imported case as the genetic sequencing of his sample was found to be identical to the genomes of three previous imported cases.
The reclassifications mean that the SAR has recorded no local, untraceable infections for 28 consecutive days.
The Macau government has said previously that it would consider reopening its border with Hong Kong if the territory could achieve “zero infections” for 28 consecutive days. But the progress of the discussion between the two SARs has been stuck after sporadic cases were recorded in Hong Kong.
Yiu Si-wing, a Hong Kong lawmaker representing the tourism sector, said the two cities should set up a mechanism to clearly define the requirements for quarantine-free travel, instead of indefinitely push back the border-reopening due to a few Covid cases.
Last Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she had told Beijing officials that Hong Kong’s business community and citizens hoped to travel to the mainland without quarantine. She said the SAR had significantly improved its epidemic control and would submit a detailed report to the central government. She said she hoped to see some progress on the matter soon.