Pro-establishment politicians have urged Hong Kong’s government to implement a universal health code system to ease travel to Macau and China’s Guangdong province during the coronavirus pandemic, but pro-democracy lawmakers and activists have raised concerns over privacy issues and potential misuse of data.

The government has not given details of the system since Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed in June that the government was finalising the plan.

In response to a question in the Legislative Council from pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan explained that Covid-19 test results would be transferred to boundary control officers for health declaration purposes and the health codes would be mutually recognised by authorities of the three places.

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Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

Chan said in a written reply that people who test negative for Covid-19 could connect their smartphones or other mobile devices and apply for the health code online.

Pro-establishment politicians told reporters that in addition to cross-border travel, they proposed that people who secure the appropriate health code should be exempt from social distancing measures. They submitted a list of suggestions to Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung in early August as relief measures during the pandemic.

Lawmaker Jeffrey Lam, representing the commercial sector, told Sing Tao Daily that he proposed a 14-day validity for the code with regular check-ups required for renewal. He suggested that public places such as shopping malls, restaurants and public transport should only allow access to people with health codes.

The suggestion has been criticised by some medical professionals and pro-democracy activists, who aired concerns over infringement of rights and ethical issues.

Arisina Ma, president of The Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, wrote in her Apple Daily column that using the health code system to restrict citizens’ freedom raises ethical alarms.

Jeffrey Lam
Jeffrey Lam. Photo: In-Media.

“Why should we take the initiative to prove and publicise our health condition in order to survive in society?… Pro-establishment politicians advocate the implementation of a health code system that forces healthy citizens to do check-ups,“ she wrote. “It is a total disregard of privacy as well as autonomy. It is an infringement of the rights of patients and medical ethics.”

Last week, public health adviser to the government Professor David Hui described a health code as a tentative measure to enable cross-border travel. He said it would not be suitable for use in granting access to consumer services as a means of boosting the economy.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong on his Facebook page compared the digital surveillance involved in the health code to electronic handcuffs as he listed the restrictions it imposes on users. “How do they categorise citizens? Is the method reasonable or backed by science?”

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Joshua Wong. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

He called for international attention to the security concerns and rights infringement issues and speculated that the health code system may be coupled with other surveillance measures. “The government can analyse Hongkongers’ behaviour, habits and their interpersonal relationships. It will further facilitate the implementation of a social credit system in Hong Kong [similar to mainland China}.”

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Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.