Owen Ching is eager to get vaccinated against Covid-19 , but cannot afford a medical check-up to find out if he is fit for the jabs. Since losing his job as a restaurant manager last year, the 38-year-old Hongkonger has relied on support from NGOs and moved into a 20 sq ft hostel room, paying HK$2,000 (US$260) a month. He is afraid he may have health problems that could result in side effects after he is vaccinated . Now working part-time as a security guard for a little over HK$10,000 a month, the cost of a check-up has deterred him from finding out if he can go ahead and get his jabs. Recently, however, he has been cheered by the wide range of incentives rolled out by businesses to push more Hongkongers to get vaccinated. Especially appealing to him are the cash rewards, including HK$1,000 for the underprivileged to get their vaccination and a health check. “The incentives are encouraging,” he says. The government is anxious to drive up the city’s flagging vaccination rate before millions of unused doses expire as early as August. Hong Kong is hoping to achieve herd immunity to Covid-19, which requires at least 70 per cent of its 7.5 million population to be fully vaccinated. As of Thursday, about 1.8 million people had received their first shot, and about 1.2 million had got their second, accounting for 16 per cent of the city’s population. The city rolled out its voluntary vaccination programme in February with two vaccines – the German-made BioNTech and the Chinese-produced Sinovac – available free of charge to all Hong Kong residents. The vaccination rate slowed down over the months, with many people hesitant to get their jabs because of distrust of the government, or out of fear of side effects. Since late May, more than 30 businesses have announced rewards for vaccinated persons, including paid leave, shopping coupons, air tickets, MTR passes, iPhones, and cash. Government employees who get vaccinated between June 1 and August 31 will get a day of paid leave after each jab. Also up for grabs are a new 449 sq ft flat worth HK$10.8 million, a full year of free hotel stays, shares in companies and an electric car worth HK$500,000. Vaccination bookings surged to 25,600 on May 28, when developers announced the prize of a new flat, up from 20,200 the day before. Bookings rose to 47,600 on June 1. Since then, daily bookings have fluctuated between 20,000 and 40,000, sliding to 27,300 on Thursday. Workers welcome time to rest Dennis Wong, 27, who works in publishing, booked his first dose on June 2, after his company announced that employees will get a day’s paid leave after each jab. He says his intense work schedule gave him no time to get his shot on weekdays, and he also felt there was no urgency because of Hong Kong’s relatively stable pandemic situation. Hong Kong confirmed three new coronavirus cases on Friday, all imported. The city’s overall number of infections stood at 11,884, with 210 related deaths as of Friday. Major Hong Kong business chambers announce HK$35 million in giveaways to encourage residents to get vaccinated As far as incentives go, Wong says: “The paid leave is the most attractive to me.” He welcomes the time to rest in case there are side effects from the jabs. He thinks the chances of winning the flat are close to zero, but adds: “If you are getting vaccinated only for rewards, you are doing it for the wrong reason.” In a recent survey by Chinese University’s (CUHK) Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, half the 705 respondents said they believed that the sooner more people were vaccinated, the more quickly Hong Kong might resume normal life. More than two-thirds of those polled thought providing paid leave after each dose would be an effective incentive. Nearly half believed that exempting vaccinated people from quarantine when travelling within the Greater Bay Area could encourage people to get their jabs. Nearly two in five thought that cash prizes would work. Social workers say some incentives can encourage the underprivileged to get vaccinated. Property developer New World Development is offering 5,000 underprivileged people HK$1,000 each to get their jabs and a health check. Sze Lai-shan, deputy director of the Society for Community Organisation, which is helping to distribute the grant, says many low-income Hongkongers are not yet vaccinated because they cannot afford to see a doctor before the jab for a check-up, or deal with any side effects afterwards. “The grant can enable those who want to get vaccinated but face difficulties,” she says. ‘I need to overcome my fears’ Despite the numerous incentives, some are still holding back from getting their jabs. Chan, 56, a security guard, says he has no confidence in both vaccines on offer, especially after reading news about cases of severe adverse effects and deaths. He says the government should do more to boost public confidence in the vaccines, and assure people that they will be cared for if anything goes wrong after they get their jabs. “I’m my family’s main breadwinner, I can’t take any risks,” he says. “Only when I’m able to overcome my fears will I take the jab.” Coronavirus: Hong Kong jab indemnity fund pays out a total of HK$450,000 to 3 people over side effects Incentives do not appeal to him as they do little to ease his fears. “Vaccination is for saving lives, not for winning a lottery,” he adds. Retired restaurant manager Paul Cheng, 74, also does not have full confidence in the vaccines, and worries that his hypertension might be a problem. “A free flat is good for nothing if I’m dead,” he says. Cheng, who lives with his 70-year-old wife, wants the government to make information on the vaccines and their health risks more transparent so people can make better decisions. “Until then, I’ll just try to avoid crowded places and take precautionary measures to protect myself,” he says. ‘Rewards promote the wrong values’ A recent survey by CUHK’s faculty of medicine found that only one in four unvaccinated people are prepared to receive the jabs in the coming six months. The main reasons for their resistance were a fear of fatal side effects, lack of confidence in the government recommendations and the vaccine manufacturers, and their willingness to wait for a better vaccine. Of the 1,200 people polled over the phone between April 23 and May 8, 70 per cent did not agree that the government should use cash to boost vaccination rates. They thought more people would be attracted by the relaxation of quarantine and social-distancing measures, as well as travel permits and holidays for fully vaccinated individuals. Professor Paul Chan Kay-sheung, chairman of the university’s department of microbiology who led the survey, says overall, the incentives rolled out so far are good and may at least motivate people to think and talk about vaccination. But he adds these alone are not enough, and the recent surge in bookings may flatten out soon. The resistance is far greater than the incentives can undo, he says. To push up the city’s vaccination rate, authorities have to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, especially the fear of adverse effects. “We have to remove the misconceptions about the safety of vaccines,” he says. Coronavirus: hopes raised for EU to ease entry restrictions covering Hong Kong, with Brussels poised to update Covid-19 travel rules He says instead of reporting every death following a vaccine jab and clarifying later that it was not related to the vaccination, the government should take more care with such information. The government can report such incidents first to doctors to determine the cause, he says, before informing the public. This will ensure that the correct information is absorbed. The Expert Committee on Clinical Events Assessment Following Covid-19 Immunisation announced on June 1 that it will only make public deaths that are potentially associated with vaccine shots. Calvin Ho Wai-loon, an associate professor from the University of Hong Kong, says there are ethical issues in offering incentives, not least being the unfairness to those who have medical issues and cannot be vaccinated. Coronavirus: almost 2,400 Hong Kong youths vaccinated in first two days after programme expands The scholar of biomedical law and ethics says incentives may also prompt some who are unfit for vaccination to risk their health for a chance of winning a prize. “Some of these incentives might be so tempting that they become inducement,” he says. “By attracting people to get vaccinated in this way, you may be promoting the wrong values.” He says such prizes may also lead people to expect a reward for getting vaccinated, instead of getting their jabs to safeguard themselves and the community. As the businesses offering the rewards may not be aware of the ethical concerns, he suggests that the government help them apply the incentives in a way that they encourage the public to get vaccinated for the right reasons. “I think of my community and people around me. I will do it for the sake of these people, and I don’t need to be rewarded,” he says.