Hong Kong rolls out COVID vaccine passport, paves way for mainland doctors

HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong rolled out vaccine passports on Thursday requiring people aged 12 and above to have at least one COVID-19 jab, and paved the way for mainland China manpower to help bring a worsening outbreak under control.

Residents will have to show their vaccine record to access venues including supermarkets, shopping malls and restaurants, a major inconvenience in a city where malls link train stations to residences and office buildings.

Separately, city leader Carrie Lam used emergency powers granted under British colonial-era laws to exempt mainland Chinese staff and projects from any licensing or other legal requirements to operate in Hong Kong.

City authorities have asked their mainland Chinese counterparts for help to build additional isolation, treatment and testing facilities, and boost the workforce as Hong Kong’s health system is increasingly overwhelmed.

“Hong Kong’s healthcare system, manpower, anti-epidemic facilities and resources … will soon be insufficient to handle the huge number of newly confirmed cases detected every day,” the government said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong reported a record 8,674 new COVID-19 infections as the global financial hub prepares for compulsory testing of its 7.4 million people – part of its “dynamic zero COVID” strategy similar to mainland China.

Allowing mainland doctors to practice in Hong Kong has been a controversial issue in the global financial hub, which for decades had some of the toughest licensing standards as a way to preserve excellence in its public health system.

The city last year passed a law allowing overseas-trained doctors to practice without taking a local licensing exam, in a move contested by many local doctors.

Hong Kong’s medical frontlines have been weakened sharply by the latest outbreak, with some 1,200 medical staff infected as of Wednesday.

Authorities also tightened restrictions from Thursday in a city that already has some of the most stringent rules in the world. Residents will have to wear masks for all outdoor exercise and will not be allowed to remove them to eat or drink on public transport.

With bars, gyms and other businesses already closed and shopping malls deserted while many residents work from home, the government said on Tuesday schools would break early for summer and resume the new year in August.

Many in the city are growing fatigued with the situation, as most other major cities learn to live with the virus.

As the urgency grows, construction work has started on a facility on Lantau Island to build about 10,000 isolation units, while private hospitals will take in patients from public hospitals.

With the city’s testing, treatment and isolation capacity already stretched to the maximum, University of Hong Kong researchers predicted new infections could peak at 180,000 a day next month.

(Reporting by Anne Marie Roantree, Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell.)