Hong Kong will be flexible in enforcing a new rule which requires the use of a smartphone app to enter government premises, a minister says, after concerns that many homeless people who cannot afford smartphones will lose access to key public services.

The compulsory use of the “Leave Home Safe” app at government buildings and other facilities will be imposed next Monday. The move aims to prevent users leaving incomplete or false personal data that could “greatly reduce the efficiency and precision of contact tracing” when a Covid-19 infection is detected, the authorities said last week.

Hong Kong people scan the government-developed contact-tracing Leave Home Safe app. Photo: GovHK.

People aged under 12 or over 65, as well as those with disabilities, will not have to show the app but must write down personal details, show ID and leave a phone number.

The new policy could bar many street sleepers from using public showers, libraries, temporary shelters and clinics, the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) warned in an open letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam and several government departments on Saturday.

The NGO estimated that almost 80 per cent of the 1,562 homeless people registered by the Social Welfare Department do not own a smartphone, as it is often stolen on the streets. Community organiser Ng Wai-tung told HKFP on Monday the authorities did not consider the city’s “digital poverty” when rolling out the new rule.

“The whole decision seemed quite rushed. The government did not consult us or other organisations,” Ng said.

A Hong Kong street sleeper holding a smartphone. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

SoCO often helps street sleepers get a basic phone costing HK$165 so they can look for jobs, Ng said, but even the cheapest smartphones cost close to HK$900. He said the group is looking for second-hand smartphones, while urging the government to find ways to ensure vulnerable people can access public services in case of emergency.

‘Practical circumstances’

Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip told reporters on Sunday that the question of whether people without a smartphone could enter government premises would depend on “practical circumstances.” Government departments will require exempted persons to leave their contact information for contact-tracing and ensure the information is correct, he said.

“Every department will look at its buildings and facilities, and based on operational needs, the people that they serve and the practical circumstances, make suitable arrangements accordingly,” the minister said.

Nip added it was “inevitable” that anti-epidemic measures restricted people’s freedoms, saying the government had to strike a balance between personal liberty and the needs of society amid Covid-19.

The Hong Kong government’s “Leave Home Safe” app. Photo: Kelly Ho.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said restricting access to government building for people do not have a smartphone is not within the ambit of the existing four pieces of anti-discrimination legislation.

“[T]he government should consider the difficulties faced by some people including the homeless and underprivileged people who do not have smartphones…” the EOC said, adding they saw that government officials have since said departments would make appropriate arrangements accordingly.

Ng of SoCO said that while the government had pledged flexibility, homeless people without a smartphone may face varying treatment from different government departments.

“Saying that government departments will make judgements depending on practical circumstances is actually quite problematic. Some departments can be quite strict,” he said.

As of Sunday, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 infection tally stood at 12,323 and 213 deaths, with 58 infections registered over the past two weeks – all of them imported cases. So far, around 4,388,700 people in Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million, have been fully vaccinated.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.