The Hong Kong government is facing criticism for ordering people who have received Covid-19 vaccinations into quarantine centres along with other residents – a move which critics say could further discourage people from getting jabbed amid a slow take-up rate.

All 1,027 residents of Tower 11 of the Caribbean Coast housing complex in Tung Chung were sent to the Penny’s Bay government quarantine facility for a mandatory 21-day period, after a foreign domestic helper living in the building tested positive for the N501Y and E484K mutations on Friday.

An evacuation in Tsim Sha Tsui this week. File Photo: Michael Ho/StudioIncendo.

Some of those who were ordered into quarantine despite being fully vaccinated are questioning why their status did not exempt them.

Residents who spoke to HKFP on condition of anonymity complained of a lack of communication from health officials, causing confusion among the group.

“We have all been treated the same, whether we have been vaccinated or not,” said one 31-year-old resident, who received her first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on April 18 and was due to receive her second on May 9.

File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I’ve had to since reschedule [the second dose] to the day we get out. I was worried about not receiving my second jab within the 21-day period,” she said, adding that she had even asked officials if it could be administered at the quarantine facility.

“They didn’t know the answer, so I contacted the hotline, and all they said was that I had to reschedule it on my own. I understand everyone is doing their best, but it’s frustrating not being able to get concrete answers to questions we have.”

In a statement Sunday, the Department of Health said members of the government discussed the possibility of exempting vaccinated people from quarantine but decided against it in “view of limited data, and concerns about emerging Covid-19 variants.”

An evacuation in Tsim Sha Tsui this week. Photo: Michael Ho/StudioIncendo.

A petition started by residents of Tower 11 says the move is “leading to the disenfranchisement of the public from the vaccine initiative, as fully vaccinated residents are placed under the same 21-day quarantine.”

It urges the government to make a firm commitment to publishing a “clear policy for quarantine exemption with reference to vaccination status.”

More than 2,000 people had signed the petition as of Thursday.

Another 40-year-old resident who was sent to Penny’s Bay with his pregnant wife and 8-year-old daughter told HKFP there had been “confusion and inconsistency across the board.”

“While the vaccine issue is an important one, it goes beyond that. These government orders just don’t seem to be based in science, and they are implemented in an arbitrary way,” he said.

Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre. Photo: Stephen Vines.

“When we had to get tested in Tung Chung, people were cramped in lifts and queuing next to each other for hours just to comply with those rules. It could have potentially turned into a super-spreader event. Yet, here we are in quarantine after testing negative, with some having received their vaccine. It just doesn’t seem effective.”  

Strong need to incentivise vaccination

On Tuesday lawmaker Ann Chiang questioned why those residents of Beauty Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui who had received two doses of vaccine had been sent to quarantine, prompting Health Secretary Sophia Chan to say that the compulsory quarantine period for fully vaccinated people might be reduced.

Lawmakers were also concerned about the lack of incentives for Hongkongers to get the jab amid a relatively slow accaptance rate.

Ben Cowling, a professor from the Department of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong told HKFP that once a person is vaccinated, Covid-19 “is much less of a threat to that person.”

Lawmaker Regina Ip getting a Sinovac vaccine. Photo: Regina Ip, via Facebook.

“There is a strong scientific rationale to relax quarantine measures for people that have received the vaccine, particularly the Pfizer vaccine as it is shown to be very effective,” said Cowling. 

“Quarantining whole buildings as a result of one positive case is a bit conservative. As a health expert, I always look at the risk assessment, and there could be consequences for sending 1,000 plus people to quarantine facilities, including mental health problems that can arise, and other personal issues.” 

“The most pressing concern is getting our vaccine rollout to a higher level,” Cowling said. 

As of Thursday 588,145 people — or 9 per cent of Hong Kong’s population — had received two vaccine doses, while just over 1 million people — or 15 per cent of the population — had received their first dose.

Ben Cowling. Photo: University of Hong Kong.

Experts suggest a 70 per cent inoculation rate is needed to achieve herd immunity.  

Stigmatising’ testing measures

The government also came in for criticism at the weekend after it ordered all of Hong Kong’s 370,000-odd community of foreign domestic workers to undergo compulsory testing after the worker who lived in Tower 11 was diagnosed with the two variant strains.

Plans to require domestic workers to get vaccinated before starting a job or renewing a contract were also announced. But officials suggested they were reconsidering this requirement following criticism from the Philippine and Indonesian governments and from rights groups, which called the policy discriminatory.

Labour Department, Immigration Department, and Hong Kong police officers enforcing social-distancing rules on Chater Road, Central on a Sunday. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“Considering they [foreign domestic workers] often have gatherings with their friends during their days off, if they are infected, it’s highly possible that it will lead to cross-transmission across families,” Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Law Chi-kwong, said last Friday before the policy rethink. “That’s why from the perspective of anti-epidemic, foreign domestic workers are a high-risk group.”

Activists described the testing and vaccination plan as “stigmatising and discriminating”, adding that the city’s hundreds of thousands of foreign domestic helpers have already been hit hard by coronavirus restrictions.

Since the mandatory testing orders were issued, two domestic helpers were found to be infected with mutated strains as of Thursday.

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Rhea Mogul

Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.