Hong Kong's 7 million people may receive free swine flu vaccinations under the government's long-term strategy against a pandemic, the health chief said. A vaccination programme to protect the population was the government's responsibility during a public health crisis, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok said in an interview yesterday. 'We want Hong Kong people to have a safe winter,' he said. Winter is the peak season for flu in the city. Hong Kong has been liaising with at least five flu vaccine manufacturers over vaccine supplies, which are expected in November. Dr Chow said students should be given priority for shots, since outbreaks in Japan and the United States originated in schools. 'We need to carefully study the details, such as the cost of the vaccines, affordability and who should get them. The safety of the vaccine is also a big concern,' he said. He has asked a scientific committee under the Centre for Health Protection to make recommendations on the use of swine flu vaccines by next week. While he would not say whether all, or only some, Hongkongers would be given free jabs, Dr Chow said the government would ensure that those who needed shots would not be denied them because they could not afford them. He also said the government would co-ordinate the acquisition of swine flu vaccines for Hong Kong to avoid any 'unfair access'. 'We will make a decision according to the scientific committee's recommendations. Then, we will apply to the Legislative Council for funding. We want to complete those procedures by June,' he said. Medicines in Hong Kong must be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Commission or countries which adopt their standards. The scientific committee will also discuss the effectiveness of vaccinating against both regular seasonal flu and pneumonia. The government is minded to stick to its policy on vaccination against seasonal flu, under which high-risk groups including young children, the elderly and the chronically ill receive free or subsidised shots but others have to pay for theirs. Dr Chow said the government would consider subsidising pneumococcal vaccinations for high-risk groups to reduce their chance of developing pneumonia if they got flu. Pneumonia is a common complication of flu infections which places a heavy burden on hospital services. Medical workers, the elderly and chronically ill patients would be given priority for pneumonia vaccinations, Dr Chow said. The Health Bureau is also working out a long-term 'social distancing' plan to control swine flu. 'The purpose of our strategies is to buy time to delay a community outbreak until the summer holidays so the virus will not spread quickly at schools. But we cannot close down schools forever - we have to plan ahead on what to do in case swine flu is with us for a long period of time. 'The US experience showed that after many high schools were closed, many teenagers ended up spending time in shopping malls and cinemas and such a movement created another threat of a community outbreak. So we have to study the situation carefully,' Dr Chow said.