Several Hong Kong doctors and more than 20 patients have been arrested over allegedly fraudulent vaccine exemption certificates, police announced on Thursday.
Coronavirus vaccines are not mandatory in Hong Kong, but the Chinese city uses a QR health code system that denies unvaccinated people access to most public places.
Only people with an exemption certificate issued by a doctor can still access these places.
Police say five doctors, three assistants and 22 patients were arrested this month on charges of “conspiracy to defraud” after tip-offs.
The offense is punishable by 14 years in prison.
The five doctors are accused of issuing nearly 24,000 waivers, with prices ranging from HK$350 to more than HK$5,000 ($44 to $640).
Police said doctors issued a suspicious number of certificates and allegedly ignored guidelines on who could be exempted.
“Citizens who evade vaccination by making false claims endanger public safety and public health,” Acting Chief Superintendent Cheung Man-Chun told reporters.
Hong Kong has continued a version of China’s zero Covid model throughout the pandemic with strict social distancing restrictions and mandatory quarantine, even when rivals reopen.
The full vaccination rate is around 90%, but the government has been less successful in persuading the elderly – the demographic group most at risk – to get vaccinated.
The coronavirus curbs have been accompanied by an expansion of digital surveillance technology, similar to that used on the authoritarian continent.
They also come as authorities crack down on dissent following huge pro-democracy protests three years ago.
Peter, a father-of-two, said his family decided against getting vaccinated after they were all infected with the coronavirus earlier this year, and due to underlying health issues.
They managed to obtain exemptions, but only after consulting several doctors.
“We’ve been wearing masks all the time for three summers here, we’ve been rubbing our hands and we’ve been denied the restaurant experience for a long time,” he told AFP, asking to use a pseudonym. .
“If one is still hesitant to get vaccinated after all this, there must be a reason,” he added.
But Superintendent Cheung said police must investigate those exemptions given without proper medical reasons.
“They would increase the risk of infection in our community and undermine the effect of the fight against coronavirus,” he told reporters.