Bosses of some Hong Kong companies are considering incentives for staff to take Covid-19 jabs after their industries were added to the list of priority groups for vaccination this week.
Employers are pinning their hopes on the inoculation programme to return the city to normality and get spending flowing again.
While most of the priority groups welcomed the government arrangement, some remained cautious about the risks of vaccination and warned against turning the inoculation drive into a prerequisite to work.
The government said on Monday it was expanding the vaccination campaign to another 1.3 million people in seven groups, taking the total number of residents eligible for the shots to about 3.7 million. The new sectors are catering, construction, education, tourism, public transport, property management companies and companies running venues heavily affected by social-distancing restrictions, such as gyms and beauty parlours.
The government initially prioritised people aged 60 or above, health care workers, public service workers, cross-border transport workers and residents and staff of care homes. About 113, 500 people had received a first shot by Tuesday, while workers in the newly added groups could book slots online to receive either the Sinovac or BioNTech vaccine starting from Tuesday.
Hong Kong has so far struck deals to purchase 22.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, enough for its population of 7.5 million, although the final shots are not expected to arrive until the middle of the year.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said he had been communicating with his organisation’s more than 1,000 corporate members, which own over 8,000 outlets, asking them to encourage staff to take the shots.
“We are recapping the details from the government so our members make their own decisions about whether they will encourage their staff to take the vaccines,” he said.
Wong stressed the vaccination programme would be beneficial to the catering industry as the government had promised that every worker who was inoculated would be exempted from mandatory coronavirus screening every two weeks.
“For me, I support this measure as staff will not need to go through the hassle of doing the Covid-19 tests every two weeks,” he said. “This can also safeguard the health of staff as well as that of customers.”
David Leung Chi-wai, chairman of Seafood Delight Group that operates 12 Chinese restaurants with about 400 employees, said he had encouraged staff to receive the shots with rewards.
“At present, all our staff have to take at least seven days’ unpaid leave a month,” Leung said. “As an encouragement, those who take the jabs will be exempted from taking unpaid leave.”
Perry Yiu Pak-leung, convenor of the Hong Kong Travel Agents’ Relief Alliance, believed the vaccination programme offered hope for the city to return to normalcy, including fully opening up the border with mainland China and resuming international travel.
“We have made this request for a long time and in fact we hope the government can speed up the vaccination programme,” Yiu said. “Many members have actively encouraged staff to get jabbed. Through the vaccinations, we see a ray of hope that the pandemic would be brought under control, our borders could be opened and the travel bubbles kick-started, otherwise the economy will be only a pool of stagnant water.”
But tourism industry workers would need to assess their health conditions before deciding whether to receive the doses, especially those with chronic illnesses, he said, adding: “We advise them to consult their doctors first about whether to get jabbed.”
Allan Chan Sau-kit, president of the Hong Kong Construction Association, said the organisation had encouraged its 300 corporate members to recommend workers sign up for shots and had considered incentives such as exemption from screening. Outbreaks emerged at several construction sites during the fourth wave of the virus.
“At present, those who failed to get tested every two weeks are banned from entering a construction site based on the industry’s requirement,” he said. “But now we are considering to exempt the vaccinated staff from taking the tests.”
For the education sector, some schools welcomed the government’s move to include teachers and school staff among the priority groups for vaccination, but said it should not be made a condition for full resumption of in-person classes and employees should be given a choice.
Chu Wai-lam, principal of Fung Kai No 1 Primary School, said vaccinations should be voluntary for its 100 staff although the school encouraged inoculations to minimise contagion risks.
“I’ve booked myself to be vaccinated on Thursday as well,” Chu said. “Although vaccination should be encouraged, it should depend on each employee’s health conditions.”
Kindergarten principal Ivy Leung Sau-ting, an executive committee member of the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), said teachers’ preferences should be respected, and vaccination should not be a prerequisite for class resumption, especially given the possibility of side effects in people who suffered from chronic diseases.
Kindergartens and schools can bring back up to a third of students for face-to-face lessons, while only schools where all staff are screened for the coronavirus every fortnight can apply for a full resumption of classes on a half-day basis.
An Education Bureau spokeswoman said it encouraged school staff to get vaccinated to protect the health of students and colleagues, adding it would continue to monitor the pandemic situation when deciding any changes to class resumption arrangements.
At the English Schools Foundation, which runs 22 kindergartens and schools across the city with nearly 3,000 staff, chief executive Belinda Greer said: “[The move] is positive, welcome news and an acknowledgement of the importance being placed on students getting back into school full-time, and as soon as possible.”
Some universities also said they were looking into the details of staff vaccination, with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology saying it “encourages all eligible members to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others”.
Fung Wai-wah, a senior lecturer at City University’s school of continuing and professional education and president of the PTU, said some colleagues were planning to be inoculated to facilitate future overseas travels for academic purposes.
For the transport sector however, Hong Kong Taxi and Public Light Bus Association chairman Chau Kwok-keung said he would not encourage taxi drivers to sign up for shots as they should assess the risks themselves.
“Taxi drivers are my business partners for renting my taxis,” he said. “It’s not convenient to give any opinion about vaccination.”
Chau also expressed concern over the risks and possible side effects of vaccination, saying most drivers were 60 or older and many had various chronic health conditions.
“Most of the taxi and minibus drivers are over the age of 60 and many have three highs – high blood sugar, high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” he said. “It’s better to let them decide for themselves. I am afraid they would blame me if anything goes wrong.”
An MTR Corporation spokeswoman said that since the vaccination programme was voluntary, staff would decide for themselves whether to join.
Andy Choi Ming-fai, chief executive officer of security and facility management firm IWS Group Holdings, said the programme had been well received by his staff, with more than 400 of 700 workers having already made an online booking for the shots.
“We have taken a lot of government contracts related to Covid-19 logistic services, such as dispatching sample bottles and making quarantine arrangements, so many of our staff are exposed to Covid-19 risks,” Choi said. “Getting the jabs would safeguard their health.”
However, Ray Or Chuen-ting, convenor of the Fitness and Combat Sports Alliance, which represents more than 200 gym operators, said he would not encourage employees to receive the jabs as he had no confidence in the vaccines Hong Kong had bought, especially the mainland’s Sinovac version.
“At present we don’t know how safe the vaccines are,” he said. “The information we got hold of is still very limited, especially for Sinovac. So far it’s very difficult for us to assess the risks and their side effects.”
Or said he was alarmed by the death of three people who had taken the Sinovac shots, although the government had preliminarily ruled that two of the fatalities were not directly linked to the vaccine, while experts were waiting for more reports on the third case.
“We need to wait and see and observe the impact of these vaccines first,” he said. “There’s no rush to get jabbed.”
A spokeswoman for bus operator KMB said the company had reminded staff to consult their doctors about their health condition and the vaccines’ risks and side-effects. A spokeswoman for New World First Bus and Citybus said workers who would like to get the shots were advised to acquire relevant information and arrangement details beforehand.
“In case anyone feels uncomfortable after vaccination, he or she should consult a doctor as soon as possible,” she said. “NWFB and Citybus will disseminate information regarding the government’s vaccination programme to staff shortly.”
Delivery platform Deliveroo said it welcomed all steps to help the food and beverage industry recover from the economic devastation wrought by Covid-19.
“We are pleased the F&B industry is seen as a priority and that our riders, as essential workers during the pandemic, have the option to book if they wish to do so.”
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