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A fistful of dollars, an armful of vaccine

Hong Kong, 2 June 2021: Money talks, especially in Hong Kong. Cash gives you the keys to this city. We have the world’s most expensive housing and the highest density of Rolls-Royce cars per capita. Some 515,000 citizens (around 7% of the population) are classed as multimillionaires. Last September, eager punters splurged HK$1.38 billion (a mere US$177 million, folks) on the opening day of the horse racing season.

So financial gain, naturally, is the answer to Hong Kong’s chronic Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. In a bold effort to boost the city’s take-up rate, a group of property developers announced last Friday they would hold a lucky draw for vaccinated residents to win a HK$10.8 million flat. They also proffered another 20 prizes worth HK$100,000 each. Other businesses quickly followed suit, with incentives such as 500 MTR tickets for unlimited rides in a year, free flights, a lottery for 500 shopping vouchers worth HK$10,000 each, and 50% off the cost of a hotel staycation – all for fully inoculated residents only. In a case of Covid giving way to Cupid, there’s even a “creative” matchmaking service for vaccinated singles.

Impressed by this largesse, our government has weighed in with “jab holidays”, announcing civil servants will be granted one extra paid vacation day after each vaccination dose. Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip says the administration is taking the lead as a major employer. Seizing the moment, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has sent letters to more than 100 businesses asking them to join the incentive drive. The Home Affairs Department has set up a hotline and help desk to assist businesses seeking to launch a raffle or lottery to apply for the proper licence.

Ker-ching! Vaccination bookings have surged. From a low of 12,000 per day before the business sector opened its collective wallet, they hit 37,000 on Monday and an eye-popping 47,600 yesterday. But let’s be clear, there’s a long, long way to go. We still have less than 14% of the population fully inoculated. As for the Covid-19 caseload, health officials confirmed six imported infections yesterday, bringing the city’s cumulative total to 11,848, with 210 related fatalities.

Money also talks in Hong Kong’s all-powerful financial sector. And so our government has announced that vaccinated directors and senior executives of major listed companies can now travel to and from the city without doing quarantine. The move frees up thousands of corporate high flyers “to travel around the world to maintain their business operations”, according to the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau. Companies are allowed a limited quota of exemptions while executives must undergo testing and stick to pre-approved itineraries. Elitist? Yes. Unfair? Definitely. It’s tempting to paint a Dickensian picture of corporate fat cats gorging themselves while we street urchins press our noses to the window. But, in tune with the prevailing mood, let’s be positive and say resumption of business travel – even if only for a privileged few – is a step in the right direction.

There is a clear momentum shift. A growing number of health professionals are advocating relaxed social distancing rules for inoculated citizens. Dr Lam Tai-hing of the University of Hong Kong says fully vaccinated people should be allowed to go mask-free in open spaces. “It has nothing to do with discrimination,” he insists. “If you’re not vaccinated, then you pose a risk to yourself and others, and to the community. It is science-based.” Dr David Owens and Professor Ben Cowling – always informed and enlightened – address this and related topics in their latest podcast. It is recommended listening.

Our leaders are taking note. They have unveiled plans to ban unvaccinated residents from “high-risk” venues – restaurants, schools, cinemas, sports facilities and the like – should a fifth wave of Covid-19 hit us. Those affected are crying foul but our Chief Executive robustly denies this strategy is intended to punish them, telling reporters: “We are trying to avoid including those who have been vaccinated in the restrictions.” I’m with you on this one, Carrie.

In another welcome development, the government’s “Leave Home Safe” app now includes vaccination e-records, which will streamline checks at restaurants and bars operating under various vaccine bubbles. How much good news can we take? Even Britain has been allowed off the naughty step. Well, almost. Fully vaccinated individuals flying in from there now have to serve just 14 days’ quarantine rather than 21.

However, nowhere does money talk louder than in the Mad Hatter world of professional football. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has transformed my beloved Chelsea FC since buying them in 2003, the latest – and biggest – trophy arriving in the early hours of Sunday morning with victory over Manchester City (owned by Abu Dhabi’s royal family) in the UEFA Champions League final. Grandson Nathan and I were glued to the TV in my living room, although the tension towards the end was excruciating. Roman’s total investment in Chelsea? Around £1.3 billion. Nathan’s joy at the final whistle? Well, that was priceless.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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