A nurse holds her arm after receiving the Sinovac vaccine in Hong Kong. Photo: Peter Parks / AFP

Hong Kong public sector employees including civil servants, teachers, medical staff and care home workers will be required to get their first doses of Cover-19 vaccines by the end of this month or they will be required to shoulder the costs of bi-weekly tests.

The government is also requiring airport workers and staff at designated quarantine hotels to get jabs unless they aren’t medically fit to do so.

The government said it would recategorize overseas places into three groups, namely high-risk, medium-risk and low-risk places, instead of using the existing five-level categorization. It said vaccinated Hong Kong residents and foreign domestic workers from high-risk places could enter Hong Kong and be quarantined for 21 days at designated hotels.

Hong Kong residents and vaccinated foreigners from medium-risk places could enter Hong Kong and be isolated for 14 days at designated hotels. They can shorten the quarantine period to seven days if they test positive for Covid-19 antibodies.

Vaccinated people coming from low-risk places to Hong Kong are required to be quarantined for seven days only, while unvaccinated people have to be isolated for 14 days.

Patrick Nip, the Secretary for Civil Service and the official heading the government’s vaccination drive, said all the new measures would help Hong Kong achieve the target of having 70% of its population vaccinated with their first dose by the end of September.

As of Monday, 3.29 million people, or 48% of Hong Kong’s population aged above 16 have had a first jab of Covid-19 vaccine. About 2.5 million people, or 36% of the population, have received their second dose, according to the Health Department.

Within the 24 hours ending at 8pm on Monday (August 2), 68,000 people had been vaccinated and about 48,300 new vaccination bookings had been made online.

The first consignment of BioNTech vaccine is unloaded from a Cathay Pacific plane in Hong Kong in February. Photo: Handout

As of Sunday, 4.31 million people, or 76% of Singapore’s total population, had received their first dose. About 3.45 million people, 60% of the population in the Lion City, have been fully vaccinated, said the Ministry of Health.

Since the vaccination program started in Hong Kong on February 26, the government has struggled with whether to make jabs mandatory for the population. In early May, it had said that all foreign domestic workers had to be vaccinated before they could renew their contracts or working visas.

However, due to the opposition from the Philippines and Indonesia, Hong Kong authorities said it would not push forward with the requirement.

On July 15, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said as major countries had not forced their people to get jabs, it was not suitable for Hong Kong to launch a mandatory vaccination program. Lam said the government had previously asked 64,000 front-line civil servants to choose between vaccines and regular Covid tests while 70% of them had chosen the inoculation.

She said such a scheme would be expanded to cover school teachers and care home workers.

Lam said Monday that it was necessary to speed up the inoculation program as Hong Kong’s vaccination rate for the first shot was only 48%, which was far below the 70% target. She said although Hong Kong had not reported any local infections for 56 days, it was facing rising risks from imported cases as the number of infections in many countries had recently rebounded.

Lam said the average vaccination rate among staff at secondary and primary schools and kindergartens was only 47%, which was lower than other public sectors.

She said it was a moderate measure to require unvaccinated public sector employees to pay for their own Covid tests, given that some western “democratic” countries had implemented similar rules. She added that the city’s vaccination program had so far remained voluntary.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference on Covid-19 social distancing restrictions in Hong Kong, April 12, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Vernon Yuen

Last month, New York City passed a vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers at city-run hospitals and clinics. More than 300,000 government employees in New York are required to get vaccinated by September 13 or get tested weekly. On July 26, the French parliament passed a law to require all workers in the health care sector to start getting vaccinated by September 15.

According to an internal notice, Hong Kong’s government workers will have to get at least one shot of vaccine or be required to get tested every two weeks from Monday. They will have to pay for their own tests from September 1 onwards.

Leung Chau-ting, the chairman of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, said union groups had not been notified in advance of the new policy. Leung said it’s not clear yet what disciplinary action those who fail to comply would face.

He said compulsory testing, which costs HK$240 (US$30.9) each, would be a financial burden for low-paid employees who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Leung also said it was difficult to get a medical certificate for being exempted from inoculation as many doctors did not want to bear the responsibility of issuing such documents.

Tony Ling, the president of the Public Doctors’ Association, said health authorities didn’t consult them about the new requirement for medical workers to get vaccinated or pay for regular Covid tests themselves.

Ling said the lack of long-term safety data was a concern for pregnant employees. He said he would follow up with the Hospital Authority about exemptions and the consequences colleagues might face if they fail to get regular tests.

Hong Kong students in the Covid era. Photo: Xinhua

Meanwhile, the government also wanted to boost the vaccination rate among secondary students to 70% by later this year. From next month, secondary schools that have at least 70% of their students vaccinated will be able to resume full-day classes.

In May, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools resumed half-day, face-to-face classes. They will have to continue such arrangements for some time as the minimum age in Hong Kong for getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 12 and that for the mainland-made Sinovac shot is 18.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said he didn’t expect many schools to be able to resume full-day classes when the new academic year begins next month. He said whether kindergartens and primary school children could resume full-day classes would depend on the overall vaccination rate in society.

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