The Hong Kong government has amended its Covid-19 legislation to allow the Health Bureau chief to annul vaccination exemption certificates suspected to have been issued without prior assessment. The new arrangement will come into effect on Wednesday.

A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. File photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense, via Wikicommons.

The announcement came after the High Court ruled last week that the government did not have the power to void over 20,000 Covid-19 vaccination exemption certificates issued by seven doctors who allegedly handed them out without conducting proper medical consultations.

The Prevention and Control of Disease (Vaccine Pass)(Amendment) Regulation 2022 will be submitted to the Legislative Council tomorrow under the negative vetting procedure, meaning that the bill will be effective before the legislature debate.

“The government took legal advice, considering the urgency of the anti-epidemic work, the time needed to appeal, and the expiration date of the relevant vaccine exemption, [the government] think[s] the most suitable way is to amend the law, not to file an appeal, this fits Hong Kong’s best interest,” a government statement published on Tuesday read.

Under the amended regulation, the secretary for health will be required to consider factors including whether the Vaccine Pass mechanism was impacted and whether those carrying the documents had been assessed before received their exemption certificate, before announcing that exemptions issued by a certain doctor would be invalid.

‘Human rights’

Chief Executive John Lee cited the government’s defeat in the judicial review case when rebutting claims that the city “had no human rights.” During an interview with TVB aired last Sunday, Lee said he must condemn a foreign media outlet, without naming them, after they claimed that the Hong Kong authorities were “suppressing free speech.”

“We just had a case in which the government was sued and lost. Hong Kong has no human rights? That’s impossible!” Lee said.

Covid-19 vaccine pass leavehomesafe
Photo: GovHK.

Under the Vaccine Pass scheme, residents have to meet certain vaccination requirements before they are allowed to enter premises such as restaurants and shopping malls.

Those who have health conditions preventing them from being vaccinated can obtain an exemption certificate from a certified doctor that allows them to meet the requirements under the Vaccine Pass.

In recent months, authorities have cracked down on suspected abuses of the exemption mechanism.

Six doctors have thus far been arrested for allegedly issuing fake exemptions. Dr Tai Kong-shing, Dr Annie Choi, Dr Fu Yuen-lung, Dr Wong Ping-leung, Dr Charlie Yan and Dr Amy Lam were apprehended last month. A seventh practitioner, Dr Chan Hoi-yuk, is reportedly wanted on suspicion of “virtually” signing hundreds of vaccination exemption certificates. He is believed to have fled Hong Kong.

Annie Choi clinic
The private clinic of Annie Choi. File photo: Google Maps Street View.

Their cases were said to involve the issuance of more than 20,000 certificates, each costing between HK$350 and HK$5,000. The government later announced that those documents would be invalidated on October 12.

However, the government decision was overturned by the High Court by Justice Russell Coleman last Friday.

Coleman ruled in favour of the “king of judicial reviews” Kwok Cheuk-kin, who launched a legal challenge saying that the government decision was unconstitutional and illegal.

The High Court judge ruled that the government did not cite any legislative powers that had allowed them to make such a decision.

Over 92 per cent of Hong Kong’s eligible population has been fully vaccinated, while over 80 per cent of residents have received at least one booster jab.

Hong Kong reported 5,221 new Covid-19 infections on Tuesday, of which 454 cases were imported. The city also saw 10 related deaths.

The city has recorded 1.88 million Covid-19 infections and 10,343 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic almost three years ago. Last Wednesday, the city marked 1,000 days since its first Covid case was confirmed.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.