The COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting economies across the world for over a year now, with significant impact on the public health system, economic growth and the daily lives of people. Locally in Hong Kong, with the concerted efforts of the Government, health authorities and practitioners, businesses and Hong Kong residents, it is encouraging to note that recently the number of COVID-19 cases has dwindled considerably and economic activities have picked up.
However, this is no time for complacency or lowering our guard. The fact that we have gone through four waves of the pandemic in Hong Kong, the emergence of different mutated strains as well as the rapid resurgence of COVID-19 cases in many Asian jurisdictions recently all point to the importance of continued vigilance and the need to establish adequate protection against this unprecedented pandemic.
Many jurisdictions have instituted vaccination programmes as one of the cornerstones in their strategy to strive for economic recovery. In many central banking forums, the focus of the discussion on economic recovery (and thus ultimate exit from exceptional policy measures) has already shifted from infection control to vaccination progress. Achieving herd immunity through a high level of vaccination is the only way to avoid the sort of flip-flop social lockdown measures we have seen in many places and to achieve sustainable recovery for people to resume their normal ways of life. This is also a key element in many discussions of establishing bubbles to facilitate resumption of some degree of normalcy in business and leisure travels.
That is why governments across the world are using their best efforts to secure enough vaccines for their population and roll out vaccination programmes. In Hong Kong, we are fortunate that we have adequate vaccine supplies so far, but getting our community to take vaccination becomes the key. If our vaccination rate continues to lag behind other major international financial hubs like New York, London or Singapore, this could even impact on our competitiveness as an international financial centre when other major financial centres allow free travel with herd immunity when Hong Kong cannot. This is a real and looming threat that Hong Kong cannot afford to overlook.
Vaccination is therefore crucial to better protecting ourselves, our family and the people around us, and at the macro level to paving the way for resuming our normal way of life and sustainable economic recovery. We welcome the Government's leadership in giving vaccination leave to Government employees to encourage inoculation. In the HKMA, we have been providing facilitating measures and incentives for our colleagues to get vaccinated, including two extra days of leave. The banking sector has also adopted facilitative arrangements to support employees in taking the vaccines.
To further promote this important effort, we are working with the banking sector in an attempt to encourage bank staff, particularly those in public or client facing positions or providing critical support functions, to get vaccinated. Looking at the experience in other major financial markets such as the UK or Singapore, and just as Hong Kong, the banking sector is classified as essential service providers. As such, even during the period when the pandemic situation in those markets was very serious resulting in dining restrictions and even large-scale lock-down and border control arrangements, the banking sector was expected to continue to provide essential services including retail banking services at their branch offices albeit on a reduced scale. There is therefore a real need for forming a strong immune barrier at the banking sector’s frontline.
For better protection of bank employees and customers, we have written to the banks to require them to strongly encourage those staff who have regular face to face interactions with customers, including those manning branches, as well as those providing critical support functions, to receive inoculation as soon as practicable. For those staff who have not yet been vaccinated or are unfit for vaccination due to medical conditions, undergoing regular COVID-19 tests is a necessary measure for risk management. We further urge the banks to introduce additional effective measures to encourage all staff to get vaccinated, such as giving consideration to granting vaccinated staff extra days of leave or providing other suitable incentives for inoculation.
The most pressing task now is to take our COVID-19 response to the next phase collectively so that we can bring economic activities back on track as quickly as we can. In addition to collaborating with the banking sector to encourage vaccination by practitioners, the HKMA is also supporting the Government in the launch of the Consumer Voucher Scheme. We are working in full swing with the relevant payment systems so that the scheme can be rolled out as planned to boost local consumption.
I am confident that at a certain point in time we will come out of the pandemic and see the economy regaining its vibrancy. Yet we are also witnessing seismic changes that are reshaping the global order. Post-pandemic competition among countries and among cities will only become ever more intense. We no longer have the luxury of time. Hong Kong has gone through two tumultuous years and is now at crossroads. There is a sense of urgency to rebuild a stable social environment and minimise internal friction, so that we can put our heads and act together to forge ahead a new development agenda for Hong Kong.
Importantly, the passage by the Legislative Council last week of the bill to improve our electoral system will enhance the institutional design, so that people elected to public offices will serve Hong Kong and the wider interest of our country. It helps ensure the successful implementation of “One Country, Two Systems”, which is a cornerstone for Hong Kong’s role as an international financial centre. The HKMA will play its part, with professionalism and dedication, in this relaunch effort by maintaining Hong Kong’s financial stability and further developing our financial services platform.
Hong Kong Monetary Authority
1 June 2021