Hong Kong did very well during the pandemic. For much of the time, there’s been very little community spread of the virus thanks to intelligent use of contract tracing, isolation and quarantine of incoming travelers, Covid-positive people and their close contacts. When infections slipped through, spread was limited thanks to community enthusiasm for mask wearing. There have never been lockdowns of the types much of the world has seen. Hong Kong also acquired enough vaccines for its entire population and has been to offer everyone a choice of vaccines.
But vaccine uptake has been slow. As of May 27, 2021, only about 20% of people have had 1 dose despite vaccines being available for months and offered to residents 16 years or older. Initial uptake was fast among those of use with family, friends and business connections abroad in the hope that vaccination will make us safer should we want or need to travel. The local population has not been very enthusiastic about vaccination. People cite a number of reasons for this: government mistrust, fear of side effects, a perverse desire to keep borders closed.
Early on, numerous groups called on the government to provide some incentives for people to get vaccinated. The best the government could come up with was exemption from some mandatory testing requirements and 7 fewer days of quarantine. This means if you visit a “medium risk” location, your incentive to get vaccinated is that instead of 21 days of hotel quarantine, you “get” to “only” do 14 days of quarantine. In the past few days, an airline ticket lottery has been floated by the Airport Authority. Get vaccinated and get a free ticket to enjoy 7 to 21 days of border quarantine. Not very attractive.
Some have called for the government to pay people to get vaccinated by offering coupons, vouchers or even cash. Others, like David Webb have proposed a vaccine lottery where those vaccinated get a ticket in a lottery for a large cash reward.
I think all of these proposals miss the point. The reason vaccine uptake is so low is that there's little point in getting a vaccine for a virus that you're never going to encounter. Covid isn't spreading in Hong Kong and travel to areas where it is spreading is unrealistic when there's 21 days of hotel quarantine. For someone not planning to travel abroad, the rational choice is to not get vaccinated. The way to increase vaccination rates is to change the circumnstances so that getting vaccinated becomes the rational choice.
At the same time, Hong Kongers that have been vaccinated watch with jealousy as much of the world starts to resume travel and wonder when we’re going to get to return to our normal lives of regularly scheduled jet lag and weekend trips to Thailand. For many of us, with family, friends and business contacts spread out across the world, the past year and a half has been lonely.
Well I, dear reader, have a proposal that will solve both our vaccine uptake problem and our travel problem without costing taxpayers a thing.
I propose that the government announce that it will unilaterally cease all pandemic controls on September 1, 2021 around the time Hong Kong's existing vaccine supply expires. No more covid testing, quarantine or restrictions on non-residents at the border. No more testing, contract tracing, social distancing or mask mandates at home. Those that want to get vaccinated, have 3 months to do so. Those that don’t want to get vaccinated can try their luck when the tourists and business travelers return and inevitably bring the virus into the community.
We will, without a doubt, see a massive rush to get vaccinated. In a Hong Kong where possibly infected with Covid tourists are arriving in 3 short months, the rational decision for most of us is to get vaccinated. The desire for self-preservation is a powerful incentive.
Border infection controls, social distancing, mask wearing, testing, contract tracing, isolation and quarantine were all tools to buy us time until vaccines were available for all that wanted them. They were effective in achieving that goal and it’s time for the government to declare mission accomplished.
The reality we live in is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus isn’t going away any time soon. We all - Hong Kongers included - are going to have to learn, one way or another, to live in a world where we might be exposed to the virus that causes Covid-19. Hong Kong can’t hide forever behind 21 day border quarantine like a hermit city of hypochondriacs in self-exile from the rest of a dirty, infected world.
The time to get vaccinated for Hong Kongers concerned about being infected with the virus is now and the time to welcome tourists and business travelers back to Hong Kong is very quickly approaching. Let's make Hong Kong Asia’s World City again!