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Residents wait in Sau Mau Ping to get their Covid-19 vaccine jabs. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Coronavirus: Hong Kong to cancel 20,000 Covid jab exemptions but new legal battle looms for government over vaccine pass scheme

  • Government spokesman says the medical certificates will officially become invalid from November 9
  • Former civil servant who lodged initial legal challenge vows to bring fresh round of review on vaccine pass policy
Hong Kong’s health minister has moved to invalidate more than 20,000 coronavirus vaccination exemptions issued by seven doctors suspected of supplying fake certificates under new powers granted to him after the law was amended on Wednesday.

A government spokesman said the medical certificates would officially become invalid from November 9, adding that the seven doctors could offer written representations to defend their cases before November 1.

He also urged those who held invalidated certificates to consult doctors to ensure they either received inoculations or continued to enjoy the exemption.

“Anyone using a false instrument knowingly may contravene the Crimes Ordinance,” he warned, adding the maximum penalty upon conviction was 14 years’ jail. “Members of the public are urged not to defy the law and not to use exemption certificates obtained through improper means.”

Hong Kong Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau. Photo: Edmond So

The announcement came hours after Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau said that amending the law could ensure “sufficient legal basis” for the government to assume its duty in pandemic work.

The government last week lost a legal battle on revoking the exemptions, with the High Court ruling the health secretary had no power to do so.

Dismissing accusations the administration sought to override the judicial process, Lo said: “It’s not whether the government wins or someone else wins. We have to make sure all citizens win in this battle against Covid.”

The legislative amendments that empower the health chief to void exemption certificates deemed to be problematic took effect on Wednesday under negative vetting – meaning lawmakers vote on them after they have taken effect – but authorities are facing a fresh round of legal challenges on wider Covid-19 policies.

Hong Kong health chief will have power to nullify Covid exemptions from Wednesday

Former civil servant and serial litigant Kwok Cheuk-kin, who won a legal battle last week that prevented the government from invalidating the documents, told the Post he would lodge a wider judicial review on Thursday against the vaccine pass and Covid-19 risk-exposure “Leave Home Safe” app.

Lo addressed lawmakers in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, a day after the government revealed it would not appeal against the court ruling but would instead amend the law to target the jab exemptions in question.

“The legislative [amendments] are to give sufficient legal basis for the government to assume our responsibilities in our anti-epidemic work,” Lo said in defence of the move.

He was referring to amendments under the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance, which empowers authorities to make regulations “for the purposes of preventing, combating or alleviating the effects of the public health emergency and protecting public health”.

7 doctors accused of giving fake exemptions banned from Hong Kong vaccine scheme

The High Court ruled that the government did not have the legal power to cancel more than 20,000 medical certificates granted by doctors suspected of malpractice.

Holders of the documents are exempted from the vaccine pass scheme requiring residents to have had three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to enter premises citywide such as restaurants or bars.

Six doctors have been arrested on suspicion of issuing the exemptions without proper medical diagnosis, with a seventh practitioner still wanted by police.

Retired civil servant Kwok Cheuk-kin meets the press after winning his legal challenge last week. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

Kwok on Wednesday said that if he won his potential legal challenge, society would no longer have to dwell on the issue “once and for all”.

“I will challenge whether [vaccine pass policies] are necessary. Hongkongers can only access designated premises by using this app but people coming for the financial summit are not required to. This is against the Basic Law as residents are equal before the law,” he argued.

He was referring to the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit, set for between November 1 and 3, during which attendees can visit designated venues despite the need to observe three days of medical surveillance – a wider discretion that ordinary inbound travellers are not entitled to.

Lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, an associate professor and administrative law specialist at City University of Hong Kong, argued that the government should appeal against the ruling.

“So I think this case deserves to go all the way to the Court of Final Appeal, so that clearer rationales can be laid down,” she said.

“In cases involving significant public interest, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal had often ruled differently.”

Lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the centrist Third Side party, agreed, saying that the latest move gave the impression that the government wanted to “circumvent the judiciary”.

7 doctors accused of giving fake exemptions banned from Hong Kong vaccine scheme

Alex Lam Chi-yau, of the concern group Hong Kong Patients’ Voices, separately told a radio programme on Wednesday morning that while he acknowledged the government’s power to amend legislation, authorities failed to show respect for individual rights when they overturned the court ruling.

Calling the government move a spectacle, he said the 20,000 residents affected by the cancellation of exemptions had been taken on “a roller-coaster ride”.

He added while some had managed to get hold of separate exemptions later, they were still required under Hospital Authority rules to have had at least one vaccine jab, which could expose them to risks.

Lawmaker Doreen Kong Yuk-foon – who previously said that there was lack of legal grounds for authorities to invalidate such a large number of certificates – urged the government to be more forthcoming in explaining the rationale behind the amendment to the law.

She also expressed surprise the government had extended the vaccine pass scheme until next year, saying the measure would affect the city’s road back to normality.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung