Several Hong Kong doctors and more than 20 patients have been arrested for forging vaccine exemption certificates, police announced Thursday.
Coronavirus vaccines are not mandatory in Hong Kong but the Chinese city uses a QR code health system that prevents unvaccinated people from accessing most public places.
Only those who have an exemption certificate issued by a doctor can access these places.
Police announced that five doctors, three assistants and 22 patients were arrested this month on charges of “conspiracy to defraud” after receiving reports.
This crime is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
The five doctors are accused of issuing nearly 24,000 exemptions, with prices ranging from HK$350 to more than HK$5,000 (US$44 to $640).
Police said doctors issued a suspiciously large number of certificates and ignored guidelines for who could be excused.
“Citizens who avoid vaccination by making false statements are endangering public security and public health,” the acting chief supervisor, Cheong Man Chun, told reporters.
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Hong Kong has followed a version of China’s Covid-free model throughout the pandemic with strict restrictions on social distancing and mandatory quarantines, even as competitors reopen.
The full vaccination rate is about 90 percent, but the government has had no less success in persuading the elderly – the demographic group most at risk – to vaccinate themselves.
The coronavirus restrictions have been accompanied by an expansion of digital surveillance technology, similar to that used on the authoritarian mainland.
It also comes as the authorities crack down on dissent in the wake of massive democratic protests three years ago.
Peter, a father of two, said his family decided not to get vaccinated after they all contracted the coronavirus earlier this year, due to underlying health conditions.
They managed to get exemptions but only after going to several doctors.
“We’ve been wearing masks all the time here for three summers, wringing our hands and denying us the experience of eating indoors for so long,” he told AFP, asking to use a pseudonym.
“If one is still reluctant to vaccinate after all this, there must be a reason,” he added.
But Police Superintendent Cheung said police should investigate those exemptions granted without proper medical reasons.
“They will increase the risk of infection in our society and undermine the impact of the fight against the coronavirus,” he told reporters.