Hong Kong won't open up before Covid-19 vaccine rate hits at least 80%: Top adviser

Many people in Hong Kong, especially the elderly, refuse to get inoculated.
Many people in Hong Kong, especially the elderly, refuse to get inoculated.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong will not consider shifting its zero-tolerance strategy to one of "living with the virus" until the vaccination rate is 80 to 90 per cent, and its fate remains tied to China's pandemic approach as lifting border curbs with the mainland remains the city's priority, said a top adviser to the government.

"Covid-zero is not a long-term policy, we can try to boost the vaccination as much as we can during this policy," said Dr David Hui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who leads an expert panel that advises the government.

"When we have about 80 per cent or even 90 per cent of vaccination rate, we may consider living with the virus instead of maintaining the zero target," he said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Thursday (Sept 16).

The city is still far from that milestone, with just 58 per cent of residents having been vaccinated with an initial dose, according to Bloomberg's Vaccine Tracker. That lags rival financial hubs, with a figure of 82 per cent in Singapore.

China, meanwhile, has fully vaccinated 70 per cent of its population but has doubled down on its zero-tolerance approach and has no plans to open up to the outside world.

With Hong Kong's priority being the border with the mainland, the city will continue to be led by Beijing's strategy even if its vaccination performance improves, noted Dr Hui.

"Hong Kong is in a dilemma now: international chambers have been putting pressure on the government due to the quarantine policy while China is still aiming for zero infections," he said.

"If Hong Kong doesn't follow China's policy, it is impossible to reopen the border with them."

Hong Kong's travel curbs are coming under growing criticism as other places that previously kept infections low through similar rules, like Singapore and Australia, pivot towards treating the virus as endemic.

The city's quarantine measures, which mandate isolation periods for as long as 21 days, remain some of the strictest in the world and are fuelling concerns that the financial hub could be left behind as others reopen.

Meanwhile, its vaccine effort is hitting a wall, with bookings falling to a record low on Sunday. A large swathe of the population is refusing to get inoculated, especially the elderly: Only 13 per cent of people aged 80 and above have received at least one dose.

Dr Hui said that opening the border with the mainland, crucial to Hong Kong's economy, is not up to the city. Beijing has not given "definite instruction", he said, "but we have to maintain no local cases for a consecutive period with a high vaccination rate".

Hong Kong has reported just two unlinked local cases in the past three months. Neither led to further transmission, making it one of the most Covid-free places in the world.

Yet the continued isolation is hurting its reputation as a financial hub where global businesses gather. Dr Hui said that it remains to be seen if abandoning the zero-tolerance approach is feasible even when inoculation is widespread.

Even Singapore is now "under pressure" though its vaccination rate is over 80 per cent and the rate is high among elderly, he said.

Singapore is now seeing daily infections approach the four-figure mark as it slowly reopens. "So, this direction may be a bold experiment like gambling for now," said Dr Hui.