HONG KONG - Officials are now reviewing whether to make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for foreign domestic helpers after the move, announced last Friday (April 30), was widely criticised.
The controversial policy was announced after tests showed that a 39-year-old helper from the Philippines had the more infectious South African variant of the coronavirus, N501Y.
She became the second helper to be infected with the variant but the first in which the source of infection was unknown. The earlier patient was also asymptomatic.
The latest case led officials to send about 400 households from a Tung Chung residential block called the Caribbean Coast into quarantine for three weeks.
Speaking ahead of her weekly executive council meeting or Cabinet on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam noted that this would be the first time the government was opting for compulsory vaccination but added that she would "instruct the Secretary of Labour and Welfare to look carefully into the matter".
She said the authorities would seek the views of relevant consular offices and that an announcement would follow in due course.
"We need to first establish a justification and we also need to communicate with the consular general offices of these countries where the domestic helpers come from, to weigh the pros and cons.
"The government, as a decision maker, will also need to weigh this with the primary objective of safeguarding public health," said Mrs Lam.
The government's plan to make vaccination a requirement for helper visa renewal has been criticised by migrant worker groups as discriminatory and unjust.
Vaccination is voluntary in Hong Kong and no other group has been singled out for mandatory jabs.
Officials last Friday also ordered all 370,000 helpers in the city to go for mandatory Covid-19 tests by Sunday.
Over the weekend, more than 113,000 people were tested. Nearly half that number were helpers.
Mrs Lam on Tuesday provided an assurance that mandatory testing was carried out on the basis of risk and specific professions, including elderly care staff.
"There is no discrimination on the basis of race. In fact, even for foreign domestic helpers, this is a protection measure and it also offers protection to the families with whom these helpers reside," she said.
Hong Kong's vaccination rate has been slow, with just about 20 per cent of its 7.5 million population inoculated since the voluntary and free programme began at the end of February.
Meanwhile, the government has plans to shorten the quarantine period for those fully vaccinated who return to Hong Kong.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan on Tuesday told lawmakers in Parliament that experts agreed such a move is safe enough and the authorities are now working on this.
For now, anyone who enters Hong Kong from places outside mainland China, Macau and Taiwan have to be quarantined for 21 days. The only exceptions are those flying in from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, who need to be quarantined for only 14 days.
Hong Kong's Covid-19 situation has been under control in the past month or so. The city has recorded more than 11,700 confirmed cases and 210 deaths since the start of the pandemic.