Hong Kong has scrapped a plan to make coronavirus vaccines mandatory for foreign domestic workers after the Philippines and labour groups criticised the proposal as discriminatory.
Still, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, on Tuesday ordered another round of mandatory testing for all foreign domestic helpers as a “precaution” against more infectious variants of the coronavirus.
Hong Kong health officials announced the mandatory vaccination plan and testing of all domestic workers last month after two workers tested positive for a more virulent strain of the coronavirus.
Authorities said domestic workers were “high risk” because they often work with the elderly and meet in parks on Sundays, usually their one day off a week, and said that those wanting to apply for work visas – or renew their current ones – would need to show they had received two doses of the COVID-19 jab.
Most of Hong Kong’s approximately 370,000 domestic workers come from Indonesia and the Philippines, countries that are both severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal prompted condemnation from the Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr, who said the mandatory vaccination plan “smacks of discrimination”.
Labour groups representing domestic workers also said they felt they were being singled out, noting that the families they worked for – as well as locals working in environments such as care homes – were not required to get vaccinated.
The groups also pointed out that wealthier foreign migrants such as the city’s white-collar financial workers were not forced to get vaccines when outbreaks of the coronavirus were traced to their districts.
On Tuesday, Lam said her government dropped the plan after officials assessed public health needs and the potential legal issues. She added that the decision had been made after meetings with officials from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Lam also said the second round of mandatory tests for non-vaccinated workers will begin on Saturday and last until the end of May.
“We have to take precautions before any possible outbreaks, as we had found some infectious COVID-19 variants in the community,” she said.
But that decision sparked fresh concern, with a Philippines diplomat warning it would “not go down well with the community”.
“I questioned the necessity of another mandatory test, citing the near-perfect compliance of domestic workers to the initial mandatory test,” Consul General Raly Tejada told the South China Morning Post, describing recent meetings with Hong Kong officials.
Hong Kong has so far reported 11,812 infections of the coronavirus, with 210 deaths.
While the territory has secured ample doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, public uptake has been very low.
So far just 16 percent of the city’s 7.5 million people have received one or more doses, a long way from the 60 to 70 percent considered necessary for herd immunity.
Regular polling shows Hong Kongers have some of the lowest support ratings for inoculation in the world.
Some of Hong Kong’s Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will pass their shelf life in September and officials fret they may be in the unenviable position of throwing away good doses.
The vaccination drive has been hampered by the government’s public trust deficit.
After huge democracy protests exploded in 2019, Hong Kong’s unelected leaders – with the backing of Beijing – have overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent in the city.