Hong Kong’s Covid-19 “vaccine bubble” measures are set to expand on February 24, with schools, and public cultural and recreational venues requiring those who enter to be vaccinated, the city’s leader Carrie Lam has announced.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets the press on January 4, 2022. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Health authorities had earlier announced that they plan to bar unvaccinated people from restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other premises this month as defined in the scheduled list of Hong Kong’s disease prevention ordinances – however, the plan will now be postponed until after Lunar New Year. Only those under 12 or with medical proof of health conditions will be exempted.

At her regular meeting with the press on Tuesday, with cases at an eight-month high, Lam said that the looming restrictions upon unvaccinated citizens will not be confined to the currently listed venues.

She added that details had yet to be ironed out, such as whether the rule applies to all people entering the venues: “As for schools, our first stage may apply to headmasters, teachers and other staffers, but it may not be [required] for all students yet.”

The number of people receiving their first dose of vaccine has surged since the announcement of the upcoming measures, according to Lam. As of Tuesday, 72.9 per cent of eligible citizens have had their first jab, with around 18,000 people receiving the first vaccine on Monday alone. Lam said it represented a new high in recent months.

While public Institutions are urged to implement similar restrictions, Lam said that, at the moment, the government has no plans to expand the vaccine bubble measures to private spaces such as company offices or malls, but she cannot rule out the possibility of implementing tougher rules in the future.

Lam also said Hong Kong was “not in the position yet to further tighten social distancing measures,” as all cases can still be traced back to imported infections.

She said that the government is being more cautious about suspending school classes as research shows that halting face-to-face teaching has huge impacts on students, especially pupils from lower-income backgrounds.

Coronavirus vaccination in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Ramon Yuen, the Democratic Party’s spokesperson on medical policy, said the expansion of vaccine bubbles was “unnecessary” at the moment. He said the World Health Organization “clearly states that compulsory vaccination is a last resort… Hong Kong now only has very few local transmission cases with traceable sources and there is already many strict social distancing measures in action.”

As of Monday, there were 29 new confirmed cases and 40 preliminary positive cases. The total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases is 12,693, while the death toll stands at 213.

Omicron cluster grows

Meanwhile, more Omicron infections were detected in the city as a restaurant cluster continued to grow.

The outbreak of the more-infectious variant at the Moon Palace restaurant in Kowloon Tong’s Festival Walk shopping mall last Monday has now affected six diners.

The latest patient who tested preliminary positive was a 66-year-old woman who was dining at the same time as the suspected source – a 44-year-old former Cathay Pacific employee who was later found to be breaking quarantine rules and thus fired by the airline.

Penny’s Bay Covid-19 quarantine centre on Lantau. File photo: GovHK.

Lam said the authorities are still tracing six diners of concern, while over 370 close contacts and their household members have been sent to Penny’s Bay for quarantine and testing.

In response to HKFP’s questions over whether the Omicron cluster will affect the reopening of the border with the mainland, Lam said “that would certainly have an impact on the ongoing discussions with the mainland authorities on resuming some normal travel,” and “we would have to wait [a] while” before the resumption takes place.

The Leave Home Safe app developed by the Hong Kong government for Covid-19 contact-tracing. Photo: GovHK.

HKFP also asked if the authorities plan to enhance the tracing capabilities of the “LeaveHomeSafe” app as some experts suggested, but Lam said she thought Hong Kong’s tracing system was already “pretty effective.” She cited the successful tracing of 201 out of 207 dinners in the restaurant cluster as a “major achievement.”

Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.