Hong Kong turns to businesses to fix foundering Covid-19 vaccine programme

If the vaccination rate does not climb, the city risks being left behind as some other global hubs resume meetings and travel. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - When bar and nightclub owners in Hong Kong met with city officials this month, they expected to hear how the government planned to coax more of the largely resistant population to get vaccinated, with their businesses only allowed to open to inoculated people.

Instead, officials turned the tables - asking them what they were going to do to help boost one of the slowest Covid-19 vaccine take-ups among global cities.

"They only asked us if we have any ideas or plans to boost the vaccination rate," said Mr Liu Wai, who represents the industry as chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ballroom and Nightclub Merchants.

A fifth of nightclubs have closed down in the five months of closure and the rest are only getting 10 per cent of regular revenue after reopening, he said, making them desperate to see immunisation rise.

Mrs Carrie Lam's administration is increasingly leaning on struggling local businesses and institutions to help get people vaccinated, as her Beijing-backed government struggles to convince reluctant residents in an atmosphere of mistrust following widespread anti-China protests in 2019.

Major companies, restaurants, and even colleges have started offering cash payouts, extra time off, even the chance to win a US$1.4 million (S$1.85 million) apartment.

"Government officials haven't been able to find a way of engaging with the community to build momentum for vaccination," said Associate Professor Karen Grepin from the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health.

"That's where they've faltered. But it's also really challenging for them to lead on it, from a political perspective. It doesn't mean they should give up. They should find ways. But it means working through more trusted agents."

More businesses and institutions are coming to the fore. Last week, the city's international airport announced it would give away 60,000 flight tickets to people who got vaccinated before a September deadline.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs racecourses and betting facilities, has offered up to three paid special leave days and additional insurance coverage for employees who get their shots.

Even regulators are getting involved. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority urged banks to give two days paid vaccination leave to their employees, local newspaper Apple Daily reported on Monday.

The HKMA, which declining to comment specifically on the talks, confirmed that it made the request to facilitate immunisations.

Hong Kong developers Chinese Estates Holdings and Sino Group's philanthropic arm Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation are also giving out a brand-new HK$10.8 million (S$1.85 million) apartment to residents who have been vaccinated.

Vaccine appointments surged to the highest in three weeks after the apartment lottery was announced, with some 17,700 people reserving slots for the BioNTech SE shot on Saturday, while another 10,500 booked appointments for Chinese maker Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which runs the city's historic Peninsula Hotel, has offered its 1,500 Hong Kong-based employees HK$2,000 to get inoculated, and an additional HK$2,000 if it is able to vaccinate 70 per cent of its local workers.

Local colleges are also taking steps to encourage shots, with the Chinese University of Hong Kong requiring students staying in dormitories to get vaccinated, or else pay for their own Covid-19 tests every two weeks.

As many places around the world scramble for more vaccines, Hong Kong's government is in the unique position of having hundreds of thousands of unused doses of the mRNA vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech set to expire.

If the vaccination rate does not climb, the city risks being left behind as some other global hubs resume meetings and travel.

The government has tried to make vaccines more convenient, even allowing businesses to schedule on-site vaccination sessions.

In mid-May, Deloitte announced 170 staff were inoculated at one such session.

Just 12.4 per cent of Hong Kong residents have been fully inoculated despite being one of the few places in the world where Covid-19 shots are available to all adults, according to Bloomberg's Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker. That is well below other finance centres, including Singapore, at 28.3 per cent, and London, at 26.7 per cent.

Mrs Lam, who has long brushed off suggestions to offer residents cash or similar incentives, argued last week that her government had already done its job by buying enough vaccines and making them freely available.

"We hope that economic incentives can be provided by institutions or employers," she said. "For the government, we will focus on the policy side."

'Can't survive'

But some business owners and experts argue that the government's reluctance to take concrete measures - such as relaxing mask mandates or traveller quarantine requirements of 14 to 21 days - dilute private efforts, and in some cases contradict them.

Mr David Webb, a prominent Hong Kong investor and corporate governance activist, mocked the airport's offer of free flights for vaccinated people on Twitter last week, noting that anyone who won a ticket would still need to shell out for quarantine. Hong Kong requires all inbound travellers to quarantine in hotels, even if they have homes in the city.

"Get vaccinated, win a chance to pay for two or three weeks hotel quarantine when you return?" Mr Webb wrote. "Hardly a compelling offer from this state-owned enterprise."

These moves to restore freedoms for vaccinated people are increasingly being undertaken worldwide.

The United States and South Korea have both lifted outdoor mask mandates for vaccinated people, while the European Union has said it will welcome vaccinated Americans as tourists this summer without quarantine requirements.

The Hong Kong government says it cannot use such incentives because of the low protection rate among the population, and the risk of new variants spreading - though South Korea's vaccination rate is currently lower than the former British colony's.

On Friday, city officials said they would allow quarantine exemptions for a small number of senior bankers travelling for business.

"If we can't have a vaccination rate of about 70 per cent, I don't think we can relax substantially on travelling, on masking, on all the social distancing measures. We'll be left behind," said Dr Lam Ching Choi, a medical doctor and member of the Executive Council that advises Carrie Lam.

Hong Kong's complex relationship with mainland China, which wants the city to stamp out local transmission before it will reopen the economically vital border, is also driving officials' conservative stance.

Like a handful of other Covid-19 havens in the Asia-Pacific region that have brought local cases down to zero, the city risks being left behind in its bid to keep out all infections, especially as other economies accept that Covid-19 is endemic, and move on.

That has frustrated people who say that despite being fully inoculated, they have still been subjected to overly harsh restrictions. For others who have not yet gotten their shots, the lack of easing has raised questions about why they should bother.

"You can't survive like this when there's zero business," said Mr Chin Chun-wing, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar and Club Association. "No one will get vaccinated just to have a drink."

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