Regional cohorts key to opening travel

Editorial | Mary Ma 7 Apr 2021

More than a month after the first Covid jab was administered in Hong Kong, just over 6 percent of the population has been vaccinated.

Although it was encouraging to see crowds forming long queues outside some vaccination centers designated for BioNTech - one of the two vaccines approved by the government's expert committee - the pace is still far too slow.

Hong Kong must speed up the progress if it is expected to catch up and reopen to the rest of the world.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern yesterday announced a pandemic milestone: a"travel bubble" allowing quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia from April 19.

It is now all the more likely that vaccine passports - or some kind of certificate - will form an essential part of a future protocol for international travel as borders open up as the pandemic recedes.

The UK government has never been shy about such a need, despite admitting that certification is an extremely sensitive issue.

Lagging only behind Israel and the United Arab Emirates in vaccinating their people, the UK has included a kind of vaccine passport in its roadmap to lifting lockdowns by stages.

Very soon, Britons with certain kinds of proof - such as vaccination records, negative Covid test results or letters showing recovery from the disease - will be able to attend football league matches or music events in person.

That will be followed further down the roadmap with a resumption of international leisure travel. Right now, it is illegal to leave the country except for trips considered essential.

It is anticipated that the UK will form a cohort with the US in view of comparable progress in Covid vaccinations. That will be ahead of the European continent, where a resurgence in the disease has forced many European Union member states to impose strict lockdowns amid dismal vaccination progress.

It is only to be expected that cohorts of vaccinated nations will emerge in different regions over time.

Hong Kong has to speed up if it is not going to be left behind. Unfortunately, many Hongkongers are still reluctant to receive the vaccines, which will only set back efforts to guide the SAR to an early economic recovery.

Maybe the best the government can do is to include some incentives to motivate the public to accept vaccination.

Perhaps it can begin with arrangements with certain popular destinations, such as Japan and Thailand.

If "bubble" agreements can be reached, I have no doubt that those hesitating will also book for two jabs of their preferred vaccine.

With that said, it is foreseeable that such talks could be complicated by the absence of standard vaccines.

While BioNTech is expected to be readily mutually recognized, it could be uncertain for Sinovac. That is especially in the wake of an explosion of new cases in Chile where Sinovac - which is known there as Coronavac - forms the bulk of vaccines administered.

However, this will fall outside the SAR's control.

What the SAR should be doing is to make slow but steady progress. Can it start to form a cohort with a destination that is easy to achieve, then extend it to other destinations?

As soon as it becomes imminent that travel becomes possible for those who have vaccinated, people will turn out for the jabs.

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April 2021

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