The government’s decision to change the law days after losing a court case related to that legislation is “a very strong example” of rule of law, Chief Executive John Lee has said.

Last week, the government 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 move came days after the High Court ruled that the government did not have the power to void some 20,000 Covid-19 vaccination exemption certificates issued by seven doctors who allegedly issued them without conducting proper medical consultations. A fresh legal challenge was filed on Friday by complainant Kwok Cheuk-kin.

When asked by HKFP during his weekly press briefing on Tuesday what the move said about Hong Kong’s rule of law, Lee said that the question was “misleading.”

“The judgement indicates that, well, there is a gap which needs to be filled, and therefore – according to the judgement – we take action fill that gap to ensure the action we take has a strong legal basis,” he said, adding that public health must be protected “speedily and efficiently.”

Lee said that, if a judgement indicated that a strong and full legal basis was still required, the authorities would take action: “That’s the principle of the rule of law – exactly – that’s a very strong example that we are upholding the principle of the rule of law.”

Chief Executive John Lee speaks during a press briefing on November 1, 2022. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Under the Vaccine Pass scheme, residents must 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 receiving the jab can obtain an exemption certificate from a certified doctor that allows them to meet the requirements under the Vaccine Pass.

Among the holders of these certificates, around 11 per cent had already received one dose of Covid-19 vaccine. Around 800 of the certificate holders had obtained a new certificate since September 27, Under Secretary for Health Dr Libby Lee told reporters last week.

So far, police have arrested 39 people – six doctors, seven clinic staff members and 26 patients in relation to exemption certificates believed to have been improperly issued. One doctor is currently wanted by the force.

Kwok Cheuk-kin, nicknamed the “king of judicial review,” outside the High Court on October 11, 2022. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Their alleged offences included making a false instrument, conspiracy to defraud and access to a computer with dishonest intent.

Court loss shows ‘human rights’

Announcing the amendment to the Covid-related legislation last Tuesday, a government spokesperson said: “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.”

Patrons must have present their vaccine or exemption QR code upon entry to some premises. The premises’ staff are required to verify the QR codes authenticity using another government app. Photo: HK Gov screenshot.

Under the amended regulation, the secretary for health will now 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.

Lee later held up the court defeat as an example of human rights: “We just had a case in which the government was sued and lost. Hong Kong has no human rights? That’s impossible.”

Hong Kong reported 4,766 new Covid-19 infections on Monday, of which 446 were imported, and 12 related deaths. The city has recorded almost 1.92 million cases and 10,184 deaths since the pandemic began.

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Tom Grundy

Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.