Mandatory mask-wearing and the Covid-19 Vaccine Pass system are to remain in place in Hong Kong despite the latest government announcement to scrap the mandatory use of its contact-tracing app, the city’s health minister has said.

The wearing of face masks was a “very important element” in controlling the spread of the pandemic and protecting people through the winter flu season, Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau said during a press briefing on Tuesday.

Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meeting the press on December 13, 2022
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meeting the press on December 13, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

His comments came hours after Chief Executive John Lee announced that people in Hong Kong would no longer be required to use the LeaveHomeSafe app to scan QR codes before entering restaurants, bars, gyms and other premises. The city will also stop issuing an amber code to inbound arrivals from overseas and Taiwan, meaning they would be allowed to visit different venues freely upon arrival.

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Citing an increasing number of Covid-19 infections in the city, Lo said the mask mandate would stay because the pandemic was “not over” and the Omicron variant was still highly contagious. Mask wearing had also helped keep the number of seasonal flu cases low in the city over the past two years, he said.

“After wearing face masks for two years, our immunity to seasonal influenza is lowered and we are very worried. We hope people would remain vigilant during this winter… only with these protections can we have more resumption of our economic activities,” he said.

Hong Kong reported 13,721 Covid-19 infections on Tuesday, among which 791 were imported cases. The city also added 37 deaths.

cold weather winter
Hong Kong people wearing face masks. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

While the authorities announced that compulsory use of the contact-tracing app would be axed, premises covered by the Vaccine Pass scheme would still check the Covid-19 vaccination records of its patrons or users before granting entry, Lo said. Such a measure was crucial in boosting the city’s vaccination rate, especially among the elderly and young children, he said.

The Vaccine Pass was “separate” from the LeaveHomeSafe app, the health chief said, pointing to alternative ways for citizens to present their vaccination proof. They could save their record on the eHealth App and the iAM Smart app, use a screenshot of the vaccination QR code, or paper versions of the code.

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“The Vaccine Pass scheme will remain unchanged for now,” Lo said.

Asked if people could uninstall the app that was first rolled out in November 2020, Lo said the app had various functions and had made important contributions to the city’s fight against the pandemic. The app could still be used to register for Covid-19 testing, he said.

Other relaxations

Lo also announced an adjustment to testing arrangements for people travelling from Hong Kong to mainland China and Macau. From Wednesday, outbound travellers will not be required to conduct a special rapid nucleic acid test at boundary control points before their departure. Instead, they must obtain a negative PCR result within 48 hours of their journey.

The government is also set to gradually reduce the frequency of compulsory testing orders issued to buildings, and instead focus on handing out more free rapid test kits in the community. Covid-19 patients under home isolation will no longer be given a wristband, but government staff would provide supply kits to affected households and perform random checks to see if any patients left their residences.

The scope of regular PCR testing for special groups will shrink as well, Lo told the press, saying that authorities would concentrate on high-risk and vulnerable groups such as Hospital Authority employees and staff at care homes.

But the requirement of daily rapid tests for students would stay in order to prevent outbreaks on campus, especially during the winter flu season, he said.

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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.