Chief Executive Carrie Lam has confirmed that the next phase of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 Vaccine Pass will go ahead as scheduled on May 31, despite experts urging the government to relax the requirement for those under 60.

Lam’s confirmation came on Tuesday after two University of Hong Kong (HKU) medics wrote an opinion piece for HKFP arguing that the scheme, which will require Hongkongers to have received three doses of a Covid-19 to enter certain types of premises from May 31, was “coercive.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets the press on May 17. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Lam was asked about the opinion piece written by HKU epidemiologists Ben Cowling and Theo Chan during her regular press briefing on Tuesday.

In response, Lam said that although vaccination could not prevent Covid-19 infections, it remained the most effective way to protect against serious illness and ensure that public hospitals would not be overburdened.

Lam also said that only around half of those eligible had received a third dose. “Therefore, it remains necessary to provide more motivation and incentive, in the hope that those who have not got the third jab will… get vaccinated,” she added.

In addition, Lam said they were “not suddenly requiring Hong Kong people to take the third dose” to meet the requirement for the next phase in the Vaccine Pass scheme, as they had announced it “well in advance.”

“I can confirm and reaffirm here that remains our plan.” Lam said.

‘No sufficient ground’

Speaking on an RTHK radio programme on Tuesday morning, HKU’s Chan said the city’s fifth-wave outbreak of Covid-19 showed that vaccines were “unable to effectively stop an epidemic from happening, or demonstrate their function as … barriers.”

Public hospitals in Hong Kong was overloaded during the fifth-wave Covid-19 outbreak. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“Therefore, when younger adults around us do not get vaccinated, in fact they will not pose a threat to the public,” Chan added.

Additionally, Chan said he did not see the “necessity or rationality” to enforce the vaccine pass for younger people as the risk of them suffering from serious symptoms or death was “very low.”

Younger adults who did not receive a full course of Covid-19 vaccination “basically would not constitute any threat or pressure to public medical services,” Chan said.

However, local respiratory medicine expert and government advisor David Hui said on the same radio show that he believed the authorities “certainly will not agree” with the suggestions made by Cowling and Chan. “Many others may not agree either,” Hui added.

Local respiratory medicine expert and government advisory David Hui. File photo: GovHK.

“Hong Kong and mainland are still adopting dynamic zero-Covid, [so] the cases will need to be quarantined. Then you cannot say that has no effect on the medical system.” Hui said.

Hui said the level of antibodies diminished over time after receiving a Covid-19 vaccination. He added that a recent study from the US suggested that the “T-cell response” – another line of defence introduced by vaccinations – also decreased nine months after injection.

“If you don’t get a booster shot, how can you deal with the upcoming… possibility of the sixth wave or another variant of the Omicron strain?” Hui said, adding that many foreign countries were pushing for the third Covid-19 jab.

A community isolation facility in Fanling. Photo: GovHK.

When questioned about potential future waves, Chan said the main reason the fifth wave ended in Hong Kong was natural infections instead of vaccinations. As additional waves may see a mutated strain of Covid-19, Chan said the effectiveness of vaccines at preventing infection will probably be lower.

‘Not bound by experts’

At Tuesday’s press conference, reporters also asked Lam whether her administration would consider “co-existing” with Covid-19, as suggested by Cowling and other medics.

The chief executive said she would not address the views of “individual experts,” adding that the government had its own opinions on the subject.

While expressing gratitude for the viewpoints offered by different medical experts, Lam said they “have not directly participated in the policy-making of the administration… which means that the government and myself are not bound by the views of experts.”

Two people using the government’s Covid-19 contact tracing application LeaveHomeSafe at the entrance of a shopping mall. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

She said her administration would strike a balance between public health, the economy, and people’s tolerance when deciding on “the most appropriate approach.”

Social distancing relaxation

Lam also confirmed that the second phase of relaxations of social distancing measures will roll out as scheduled on Thursday.

Starting from Thursday, restaurants will be allowed to open until midnight and bars can resume operations with a limited capacity. People will also be able to take their masks off when exercising indoors in premises that satisfy air ventilation standards.

The maximum capacity for cinemas, performance venues, museums, and religious premises will be raised to 85 per cent. Eating and drinking will be allowed in cinemas as well.

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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.