Hong Kong will not “hastily” follow mainland China in relaxing Covid-19 policies, the city’s health chief said, adding that measures mandating vaccination and the use of the LeaveHomeSafe app to enter businesses would remain.

Lo Chung-mau
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau. File photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau addressed lawmakers’ questions at a Legislative Council meeting on Friday, during which he was asked multiple times if there were plans to ease Covid-19 rules.

China announced earlier this week a nationwide loosening of pandemic restrictions that included reducing the frequency of tests, limiting the scope of lockdowns and allowing the infected to isolate at home instead of in government facilities.

“We maintain close communication [with the mainland over Covid-19 policies],” Lo said. “But while our direction is the same, under One Country, Two Systems, we have different backgrounds [such as] in population, medical systems, vaccination rate, immunity barrier and economic structures.”

Included among mainland China’s relaxations was the scrapping of health QR codes to enter certain venues.

covid-19 covid shopping mall qr code
A shopping mall LeaveHomeSafe QR in Hong Kong on Tuesday, March 2. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Asked by lawmaker Michael Tien if Hong Kong would axe the use of the LeaveHomeSafe app, currently needed to enter restaurants, gyms and other businesses, Lo said LeaveHomeSafe was “different from the mainland’s health code.”

“Besides LeaveHomeSafe, we also have the Vaccine Pass. The Vaccine Pass and LeaveHomeSafe have an important relationship,” he said, adding that the Vaccine Pass was the reason why Hong Kong’s Covid-19 vaccination rate was “so high.”

Almost three years on since the first coronavirus case was confirmed locally, Hong Kong continues to maintain strict Covid-19 restrictions long dropped around the world. Masks are required both indoors and outdoors, and arrivals cannot enter restaurants and other businesses during their first three days in the city.

Elderly vaccination ‘still not ideal’

While Hong Kong struggled to promote Covid-19 jabs in the early days, the vaccination rate increased after the city made the scanning of the Vaccine Pass – which records one’s vaccination status – compulsory for entry into a number of premises.

Covid-19 vaccine Sinovac elderly
Elderly people queue up for vaccination. File Photo: GovHK.

Almost 93 per cent of the population have received two Covid-19 shots, while 83 per cent have received three.

In response to a question by lawmaker Edward Leung about what conditions would be needed for authorities to consider scrapping the LeaveHomeSafe app and Vaccine Pass, the health chief said the vaccination rate among the elderly was “still not ideal.”

“Thirty-eight per cent of people aged 80 and above have not gotten their three Covid-19 shots,” he said.

Bivalent Covid-19 vaccine
The new Omicron-targeting BioNTech vaccine is available at community vaccination centres. File photo: GovHK.

Lo added that the LeaveHomeSafe and Vaccine Pass rules would be dropped at an “appropriate time.”

Uptick in Covid cases

Hong Kong has seen an uptick in daily Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, with another 13,924 new infections recorded on Friday.

Health authorities said in a press conference on Thursday that public hospitals were under pressure due to the influx of Covid-19 patients, The 14,373 new cases reported on Thursday was the highest number of new infections Hong Kong has seen since March.

Meanwhile, authorities have cut quarantine for Covid-19 patients and close contacts from seven days to five days, explaining that an analysis of close contacts who then tested positive for Covid-19 showed that a vast majority of patients’ infections were found by the fifth day.

To date, Hong Kong has reported almost 2.22 million Covid-19 infections and 10,914 related deaths since the pandemic began.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.