When Philippine foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr praised Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last Tuesday, calling her the best leader in Hong Kong since the opium war, others in the city’s administration heaved a sigh of relief.
A potential diplomatic row had been averted.
Only two days earlier, the outspoken Filipino top diplomat had slammed a new Hong Kong policy making Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for all domestic helpers, saying it “smacked of discrimination”.
His furious remarks, adding to protests from the city’s Philippine and Indonesian consulates as well as an outcry among concern groups complaining of discrimination, prompted Lam to make an embarrassing U-turn, saying she would ask the labour minister to review the plan.
Her swift response drew fulsome praise from Locsin, but insiders and observers said the episode only exposed, yet again, the government’s political insensitivity.
Lam’s cabinet advisers in the Executive Council questioned her flip-flopping, with some saying the administration needed a central coordination platform to weigh the political impact of new policies.
Those in the know said the decision to test nearly 400,000 domestic workers for Covid-19 and have them vaccinated before they renewed their contracts was made hastily and rushed into implementation.
The saga began at the end of last month, when two helpers in the city were found to be carriers of more infectious Covid-19 variants.
Insiders familiar with the situation said officials of the Food and Health Bureau and the Labour and Welfare Bureau then raced to come up with plans to prevent possible community transmissions.
Without consulting the Exco or the government’s expert group of pandemic advisers, officials took barely a couple of days to announce on April 30 that tough measures were urgently needed to deal with Covid-19 variants.
They included mandatory tests for all domestic helpers by May 9 and requiring them to be vaccinated before their contracts could be renewed. No time table was given for the scheme.
“At that point, most discussions were made between the two bureaus,” a government source told the Post. “Honestly, the decisions were based on health perspectives, without any political considerations or assessment that they might be potentially discriminatory.
“Given that mandatory vaccinations would be adopted for travel bubble plans anyway, we thought there should be no problem applying the same to specific high-risk groups.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Labour and Welfare Bureau source said there could have been a more comprehensive review of the proposals if officials had a few more days to consult others.
Explaining their haste, he said: “We were told that the top priority was to get domestic workers to use their days off over the weekend to get tested.”
Given that tight time frame, they rushed out the measures on the afternoon of Friday, April 30.
Most helpers in Hong Kong are Filipinos and Indonesians, and that weekend saw tens of thousands standing in long queues at testing stations across the city.
‘Policy left hanging in the balance’
Government officials were unprepared for a backlash and were caught by surprise when Philippine and Indonesian diplomats reacted angrily to the new policy.
Both consulates said it was unfair, and argued that if domestic helpers from their countries were being forced to undergo mandatory vaccination, the same should apply to all non-resident foreign workers. Locsin then weighed in.
Only then did city leader Lam step in and ask labour minister Law Chi-kwong to consult the consulates and review the plan, according to a source.
Some insiders said a potential diplomatic row might have triggered Beijing’s concerns as well.
“I am not saying the Executive Council will be able to offer very smart advice, but not consulting people on possible political consequences does not sound very smart or sensitive either,” an Exco member said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The government has now left the matter hanging in the balance, as if they do not have legitimate reasons to request mandatory vaccinations. It will definitely draw criticism when the policy is relaunched.”
‘Silly to ignore diplomatic impact’
It is understood that the labour bureau has been in touch with the consulates and will continue to work on the plan. One possibility is that it will only require vaccinations for new helpers arriving from foreign countries including the Philippines and Indonesia, a source said.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of Beijing’s semi-official think tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the episode showed that the local government failed to consider the current international situation.
He said China considered Southeast Asian countries to be important partners in its Belt and Road Initiative, especially at a time when its relations with the West were difficult.
Matters involving the Philippines were particularly sensitive, he pointed out, given Beijing’s recent war of words with Manila over disputes in the South China Sea.
“The Hong Kong government must have its rationale when it comes to anti-epidemic measures, but it has to strike a balance between these measures and the impact on people, especially minorities and other nationals,” Lau said. “Not considering the diplomatic impact is silly, and may affect the central government’s relationship with these countries.”
Unlike in the past, he added, the city government now had to take diplomatic matters into consideration, as Hong Kong was often used by other countries to attack China.
“These policies should be fully deliberated among principal officials before their formal announcement,” Lau said.
This was also not the first time Hong Kong has found itself criticised for diplomatic insensitivity.
In 2016, officials imposed a ban on domestic workers cleaning high-rise windows, after a number of helpers fell to their deaths. But officials took action only after the Philippine consulate asked for it and several protests were staged.
‘Do more to explain, communicate’
Exco member Ronny Tong Ka-wah said he believed the government should not back down if there was enough scientific evidence to support making it mandatory for domestic helpers to get vaccinated.
“We previously stopped residents returning from Britain and banned flights from India, and no one criticised the government for being discriminatory,” he said.
He added that the recent U-turn discredited the government a little, suggesting it was unprepared and had not thought through a policy thoroughly.
“I think some officials simply lack diplomatic sensitivity, as they have been civil servants for so long,” Tong said.
He suggested setting up a central coordination platform, which would involve politicians and experts to consider pandemic-related matters.
Another Exco member, Dr Lam Ching-choi, said that at this stage of the pandemic, there might be a need to consider mandatory vaccinations to minimise imported infections, but officials had to work harder to explain.
“This definitely requires more explanation and communication, especially when it involves other nationals,” Lam said.
“I believe that every country understands the severity of the pandemic, and many are talking about vaccination passports, but when it comes to vaccination for workers, there might be a need for more discussion and education.”
Vaccinations are voluntary in countries including the United States, Australia and Britain. But in some countries, vaccination policies have caused tension between individual rights and the moral duty of individuals to lower infection rates.
In Indonesia, the government announced in February that citizens who refuse to take their jabs in its mandatory programme would be punished despite widespread hesitance over vaccines.
Italy made coronavirus jabs mandatory for all health workers last month, warning those who refuse that they could be suspended without pay for the rest of the year. But critics questioned the legality of forcing only some categories of workers to get vaccinated.
Civic Passion lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai said any coercive measures to get individuals vaccinated on “public safety” grounds would be immoral, and this included making it mandatory for foreigners coming to work in Hong Kong.
If the city’s bureaucrats had only a basic understanding of best practices around the world, they would not be taking flak for the recent policy U-turn, he said. And instead of imposing mandatory measures, he suggested incentives to encourage all foreign workers to get tested and vaccinated.
While many countries are developing “vaccine passports” to boost tourism, Cheng said vaccination should not be made a requirement as it could deprive vaccine-hesitant workers from pursuing overseas job opportunities.
“It’s a type of blackmail that further divides the world into tiers,” he said.