No more jabs, just swabs for helpers

Top News | Jane Cheung & Mary Ann Benitez 12 May 2021

Mandatory vaccination for domestic helpers has been dropped after a public backlash, but they will be mandated to get tested again this month, says Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The announcement came a day after authorities met with the Philippine and Indonesian consuls-general in Hong Kong to listen to their opinions.

Lam said the government decided not to require the 370,000 foreign helpers to be vaccinated before renewing contracts or when new helpers arrive.

But as a precautionary measure, Lam said another round of mandatory testing will be issued on Saturday for all helpers to be tested by May 30.

The vaccine idea was first announced by Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong on April 30.

"Now we are still unclear how long the incubation period of the mutant variant is," Lam said. "It could be longer so we need another round of mandatory tests for prudent purposes."

Umbrella group Asian Migrants Coordinating Body criticized the mandatory testing policy as racist and called on helpers to wear red on Sunday before going to the Equal Opportunities Commission to file a complaint.

Sringatin, head of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, said the group is disappointed at its own consulate for going along with the testing policy.

"We faced discrimination in public areas and at the mandatory tests one week ago," she said. "Some of our friends were not allowed to enter restaurants and clinics and were rejected by taxi drivers. We have been threatened by locals and reported to police for not obeying."

Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, also of the union, said it was a "logistical nightmare on May 1, 2 and 9 when they squeezed into testing centers and queued up for long hours under the sun and in the rain."

Lam said the testing capacity will be boosted and that she hopes helpers, if their health conditions permit, get vaccinated.

"That would lower the pressure on virus tests for all helpers. I really don't want to see them spending a long time lining up in the hot weather," she said.

Philippine consul-general Raly Tejada questioned the necessity of a second round of testing after the high compliance rate in the first round.

And the helpers' employers should get tested too, Tejada said. But the idea was rejected by Law, citing logistics issues, as it would involve an additional one million Hongkongers.

Tejada quoted Law as saying that authorities "will ask employers to make appointments for their helpers so there will be no rush and unnecessary crowding."

Hong Kong only reported one imported case yesterday - from Indonesia - and had no local cases for the fourth consecutive day. The city's tally was 11,813, including 210 deaths.

The first round of tests was triggered after a Filipino helper living in Caribbean Coast, Tung Chung, was found infected by the highly contagious mutant strain on April 29. Authorities feared the virus would spread among domestic workers.

In the end, the tests picked up three more infected helpers, including one from Allway Gardens, Tsuen Wan, who was an imported case after arriving in late March. The virus went through a long incubation period in her case, authorities said.

The two others - living in Kornhill in Quarry Bay and Royalton in Pok Fu Lam - were found to have participated in a Sham Shui Po party together with the helper from Caribbean Coast.

The three contracted the mutant strain from the party's host, who was a relative of the city's first two patients - an Indian engineer from Dubai and his girlfriend .

The host tested positive for antibodies, indicating he was infected but recovered on his own. So far, the cluster has seen nine infections.

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