Coronavirus: Hong Kong children aged 12 to 15 can begin booking vaccination slots from Friday, get jabs on Monday

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Hong Kong children as young as 12 can book Covid-19 vaccination slots beginning on Friday and receive the jabs as early as Monday while primary school pupils may become eligible for the shots once clinical data shows it is safe.

The step, revealed by the government on Thursday, meant an additional 240,000 residents would be covered by the programme, taking the total to just over 90 per cent of the city’s population of 7.5 million, but the drive remained sluggish and only about 15 per cent of people were fully inoculated.

“Vaccination is vitally important in protecting adolescents and children from Covid-19 infections, stopping its spread in the community and can raise the whole of society’s immunity,” civil service minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said, adding the next three months would be the “critical stage”.

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Nip urged all unvaccinated residents to receive at least a first shot by late August as he noted the city’s 29 community vaccination centres were scheduled to close in late September.

At the same time as the government was struggling to energise the programme ahead of that deadline, authorities were succeeding in tamping down the spread of the virus, with only two new infections emerging on Thursday, one imported from Britain and the other from Mauritania. Fewer than five people tested preliminary-positive for the virus.

As the pandemic stabilises, the prospects for an eagerly awaited travel bubble with Singapore continue to improve, and the Hong Kong government said both sides would review the plans early next month. The city state is also widening its inoculation drive and has sharply brought down its daily caseload, although both sides admitted talks must proceed carefully.

Under the revised rules, Hong Kong children aged between 12 and 15 will be able to receive their jabs in three ways: via individual bookings from Friday 9am onwards at the 24 community vaccination centres offering the BioNTech vaccine, by group vaccinations at the same centres starting from June 21, or through outreach services at schools from June 28 at the earliest, but a minimum number of staff, students and parents must have agreed to be vaccinated.

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Nip said vaccinations could be arranged for a school if at least 300 people, including staff and students’ parents, were keen on the outreach service. If only a few dozen people showed an interest, they could make use of the group booking service at the vaccination centres and transport would be arranged, he added.

Parents must sign a letter of approval for their children to take the jabs at the community centres.

The government does not allow anyone under the age of 18 to receive the other vaccine being offered in the city, the Chinese-made Sinovac.

Professor Lau Yu-lung, chairman of the Scientific Committee on Vaccine Preventable Diseases, recommended on Wednesday that schools with at least a 70 per cent vaccination rate be allowed to resume full-day, in-person classes, as well as allow students to join outdoor sports on campus without wearing a mask.

But Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung refused to back up the suggestion with a cast-iron guarantee, saying those institutions would only have the “condition” to resume full-day schooling and officials would need to take into account the overall pandemic situation and school preparedness.

Asked whether the government’s earlier announcement that unvaccinated young people might be confined to home learning should a fifth wave arrive, which had raised fears of “vaccine discrimination”, Yeung said: “Don’t say there is discrimination between those that are vaccinated and those that are not. Now is the time to do something for the greater good of society.”

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Expanding the vaccination programme to primary school children would depend on whether “sufficient data” supported the step, he said, adding “the sooner the better”.

According to a survey by the Education Bureau in early May, only 18 per cent of teachers had been vaccinated.

The response among secondary school students to taking the shots was mixed. Jessie Tse, a 15-year-old attending True Light Middle School of Hong Kong in Tai Hang, was sceptical.

“I won’t get vaccinated because I don’t think there’s a need or urgency,” Jessie said. “The risk involved is an unknown variable.”

But Marilyn Cheung, a 14-year-old student at South Island School in Aberdeen, supported the expansion, saying: “I’ll take the vaccine because I have a little brother and he’s really young, so it’ll be good for me to get vaccinated and protect him because he’s too young to take it.”

Dion Chen, principal of YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College and chairman of the Hong Kong Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools Council, said the government’s options for students to get their jabs should be able to accommodate most pupils and parents.

But Chen warned that hitting the approval threshold of 300 pupils, teachers and parents for the outreach service might be challenging, especially for schools with a smaller student population. “We welcome a lower threshold if it’s [possible],” he said.

Chen, who said his school would consider surveying parents and pupils soon about their willingness to receive shots, said linking the resumption of full-day classes and other relaxation measures with the vaccination rate might put pressure on some students, who might not be able to take the doses due to health or other concerns.

Many schools were also holding exams this month and might need more time to decide on vaccination arrangements, he said.

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Henry Tong Sau-chai, the former chairman of a government advisory committee on home-school cooperation and father of a 15-year-old student, said schools should grant holidays or sick leave to students who had received the vaccine.

“Also for instance, if a student has to participate in certain activities on campus the day after he or she gets vaccinated, schools should adjust the [intensity] of such activities such that it would be suitable for them,” Tong said.

George Leung Wing-hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Special Schools Council, said special schools were concerned about pre-vaccination assessments for children with special needs, and he suggested having doctors or health experts visit the school to look into the medical history of students beforehand.

Leung also said for children with health issues who were not suitable for the jabs, having their family members vaccinated could be an effective way to better protect them from the virus.

Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu said that vaccinating children was an important step in the fight against Covid-19 given that younger people were more likely to be infected by emerging variants, based on experiences in Britain and India.

But opening up jabs to those aged 12 to 15 – roughly 3 per cent of the population – would not have a substantial impact on the city’s overall immunity against the coronavirus.

“Around 27 per cent of our population are older than 60. If we can’t handle the vaccination of those elderly people well, it is not possible to build up our herd immunity,” he said.

Separately, a government health adviser told a morning radio programme that health authorities were testing different methods of drawing blood via finger pricks for Covid-19 antibody screenings to be administered at the airport – a move seen as the next step in the fight against more virulent strains of the coronavirus.

The city’s overall tally of coronavirus cases stands at 11,874, with 210 related deaths.

Additional reporting by Ngai Yeung

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