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  1. Special Reports
August 27, 2021

Hong Kong regulator urges banks to ramp up Covid vaccination

By Mohamed Dabo

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) is urging banks and all authorised institutions (AIs) to ‘introduce additional effective measures to encourage all bank staff to get vaccinated’. Mohamed Dabo reports

By all accounts, Hong Kong’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been admirable. Even more so because of all the former British colony’s many handicaps in this regard.It is one of the world’s densest cities; public transit is often packed. There are even direct flights and trains from Wuhan, the Chinese city where Covid-19 first emerged late last year. In fact, more than 2.5 million people arrived from mainland China in January alone.

With a population of 7.5 million people, Hong Kong has recorded around 1,200 cases. Singapore, by comparison has had more than 43,000, amid an outbreak in migrant worker housing. That caused the city-state to enact lockdown measures for more than two months.

In contrast, Hong Kong had consecutive weeks of zero new cases, and managed to avoid a lockdown while containing – and to a large extent eliminating – Covid-19.

“However, this is no time for complacency or lowering our guard,” says HKMA.

“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.”

The regulator’s message to financial institutions follows.

Achieving herd immunity will be critical

Vaccination is a crucial measure in the fight against Covid-19. Across different jurisdictions, the push for a high vaccination rate in order to achieve herd immunity is a critical strategy for the ultimate resumption of normal economic activities and international travel.Here in Hong Kong, the HKMA recognises that considerable efforts have been made by the banking sector to facilitate and encourage vaccination in the industry.

These include the Covid-19 Vaccine Webinar organised by the Hong Kong Association of Banks to promote understanding of the importance and benefits of vaccination, the organisation of group onsite vaccination at bank premises, and group bookings by banks for vaccination at Community Vaccination Centres.

To further promote this important effort, we urge all AIs to introduce additional effective measures to encourage all bank staff to get vaccinated.

In particular, consideration should be given to following the recent practice of the government and the HKMA of giving extra days of leave to staff who have taken both doses of the vaccine or providing other suitable and adequate incentives for inoculation.

Vaccination of client-facing staff is a high priority

Additionally, it is necessary to strengthen the protection of bank staff and customers and to facilitate better business continuity planning given that banks perform critical economic functions and are expected to maintain some level of operations even under extreme pandemic control measures.The HKMA therefore requires that all AIs should strongly encourage staff performing client-facing roles or critical support functions to get vaccinated. To this end, AIs should identify and draw up a list of designated staff expected to receive inoculation.

The list should include, but should not be limited to, those staff involved in branch operation, wealth management and commercial banking, who have frequent face-to-face interactions with customers, as well as those responsible for critical IT, data centre, treasury and settlement operations.

Bank staff included in the list should be requested to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Arrangements should be made for those, who have not yet been vaccinated or are unfit for vaccination due to medical conditions, to undergo effective testing for Covid-19 every two weeks.

In this regard, following the advice of public health authorities, the HKMA considers that polymerase chain reaction-based nucleic acid testing using combined nasal and throat swabs is an effective test for Covid-19 for this purpose.

Firms to report on vaccination programmes

AIs are required to submit to the HKMA, within two weeks from the date of this circular, a breakdown by department or function of designated staff expected to receive inoculation. Staff included in the list should undergo the first Covid-19 test by 30 June 2021 if they have not yet taken the first dose of vaccine by then.Promoting a high vaccination rate is a collective effort of the whole community towards the ultimate resumption of normal economic activities. It would also provide the requisite foundation for Hong Kong to re-start international travel, which is crucial for usto maintain Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre.

The banking sector has an important role to play in this process and should make its contribution to safeguarding public health and bringing Hong Kong’s economy onto a steady recovery path.

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