Hong Kong health authorities confirmed 12 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, while up to 70,000 residents registered for Covid-19 jabs, fully booking slots for a fortnight on the first day of the city’s mass vaccination drive opening.
All vaccine slots available for two weeks from the coming Friday were fully booked as of 4pm.
In a separate development, the Executive Council approved a plan to lift social-gathering restrictions from two people to four, which would take effect at midnight on Tuesday, according to sources.
The Food and Health Bureau had earlier said it planned to relax the rule on March 3. A number of social-distancing curbs were loosened last week amid an easing of the epidemic.
Eleven of the latest cases were locally transmitted, including three which were untraceable. The other was imported from the Philippines. More than 10 people also tested preliminary-positive.
The total caseload stood at 10,896, with 197 related deaths.
Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen on Tuesday said the vaccine bookings had taken up about 80 per cent of the slots available over the next two weeks, and urged other residents hoping to take the jabs to wait for further arrangements.
Vaccinations began at 11am for a select group of 200, and will get under way on Friday for the rest of the city’s 2.4 million priority residents after the first million jabs from mainland China manufacturer Sinovac arrived at the end of last week.
“I hope today’s vaccinations will show residents how the process works so they can gain some confidence in the system,” Nip told reporters outside the Central Library inoculation centre.
He added that each of the five community centres administering Sinovac jabs could handle 2,500 inoculations a day, and that the extension of the programme to private medical practitioners would be sped up to allow more online booking.
Some priority groups – including health care workers, care home staff and people providing essential public services – were selected to receive their jabs on Tuesday morning in a bid to encourage others to come forward and get vaccinated.
Chan, a 60-year-old retiree, said it took him 40 minutes to book a slot online overnight. Arriving 15 minutes before his appointment, he got his jab at 10.20am, then rested for 30 minutes as advised before leaving the Central Library in Causeway Bay.
“We have waited a whole year for this. Isn’t it better to get a vaccine now and earlier, in case you contract Covid-19 tomorrow?” he asked.
Chan said he had high blood pressure, but did not consult medical opinion before being vaccinated, nor did he experience any immediate side effects.
Asked what his biggest wish was after vaccination, he named quarantine-free travel to the mainland, adding he believed the government would soon make such arrangements with Macau and Shenzhen.
Peter Lee, a senior nursing officer at the Department of Health, was among the health workers chosen to receive jabs on Tuesday.
“Very frankly, when many people in society are living rough, I hope, as a nurse, and indeed everyone, will take a small step, so [Hong Kong] can come out of this pandemic,” he said.
The veteran nurse said he did not feel anything after the jab, adding he had more confidence in the Sinovac vaccine as it used the traditional inactivated virus technology used in flu vaccines, rather than the new mRNA platform used in the BioNTech doses.
Peter Clemmow, a general manager at Cathay Pacific Airways, was among those getting the jabs due to his status as a cross-border transport worker, one of five groups given vaccination priority.
Describing the opportunity as a “real privilege”, Clemmow said: “I am really proud to be here … I think any vaccine inside our arm is a good vaccine.”
The veteran pilot added he believed the aviation sector would continue to work with the government to open up air travel as soon as possible.
On Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and other senior officials became the first in the city to be vaccinated.
Lam described the inoculation campaign as a “ray of light” in Hong Kong’s year-long pandemic fight, adding she was “very happy, very excited” to take the jab and urged the public to also get inoculated.
Lam on Tuesday said she had not felt any discomfort after receiving her jab the previous day. “I don’t even feel any pain in the part of my arm where the injection was administered.”
She again debunked rumours claiming the vaccines she and other officials received were not ones manufactured by Sinovac. The false claims circulated online just hours after she was immunised.
The roll-out of the Sinovac jabs comes less than a week after it was approved for emergency use by the city’s health authorities after a recommendation by an expert panel. However, some medical professionals questioned the panel’s decision, because it had not waited for Sinovac to publish data in a peer-reviewed medical journal, as it had for BioNTech.
Priority residents would be able to receive Sinovac shots from Friday at five community vaccination centres, the government announced on Tuesday.
Another 24 centres will provide the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, co-developed by firms in Germany and the United States, once the first batch arrives by the end of the month as expected.
The Sinovac vaccines will also be available at 1,500 private clinics and 18 government-run general outpatient clinics.
Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng and Zoe Low