Hong Kong is to scrap its Covid Vaccine Pass scheme, Chief Executive John Lee has announced on Wednesday, meaning proof of vaccination will no longer be required to enter key venues. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for international arrivals will be scrapped, though unvaccinated non-residents will still be denied entry.

Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau walking into a press conference on December 28, 2022
Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau walking into a press conference on December 28, 2022. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The health authorities will also stop requiring close contacts of Covid-19 patients to undergo isolation, will axe the group gathering limit of 12 people and lift venue capacity limits. All relaxations will kick on on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the city will maintain the outdoor mask mandate as it prepares to resume quarantine-free travel with China in mid-January despite a rampant outbreak sweeping the mainland.

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Hongkongers will no longer have to provide proof of vaccination when entering restaurants or other businesses, Lee told the press. The current measure requires eligible residents aged 12 or above to receive at least three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine before they can enter a host of businesses. Children as young as five have to be at least double-jabbed.

In addition, Lee said people will no longer have to undergo isolation at home if they are found to be close contacts of Covid-19 patients. But they are still required to undergo tests by themselves for at least five days.

Measures still in place include the mask mandate, isolation orders for Covid patients, daily rapid testing for students and teachers, a ban on unvaccinated non-residents arriving from overseas, and a ban on eating on ferries.

Lee said the adjustments were based on the wide vaccination coverage of residents and the fact that over 2.5 million were infected in previous outbreaks. He said Hong Kong already had a “relatively wide and comprehensive anti-epidemic barrier.”

Covid-19 mask population
Photo: GovHK.

The city’s children and elderly are nevertheless lagging behind in terms of vaccination coverage. As of Tuesday, only 78.4 per cent of eligible children between three and 11 are at least double jabbed, and 69.8 per cent of those aged 80 or above had two or more doses of vaccine.

‘No rational scientific argument’ for masks

Hong Kong authorities have been pressured to further relax anti-epidemic measures as mainland China rapidly dropped its once-stringent Covid-19 restrictions following nationwide protests last month.

A lawmaker urged the local government to scrap all measures listed under the city’s disease control legislation, such as the mask mandate, Vaccine Pass, and group gathering limit.

Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meeting the press on December 28, 2022
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meeting the press on December 28, 2022. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Health chief Lo Chung-mau cited experts in saying masks must stay: “In order to prevent citizens from suffering the dual infection of Covid-19 and winter influenza… and to protect the healthcare system, the government decided to maintain the mask-wearing requirement.”

David Owens – a doctor and honorary clinical assistant professor in family medicine at the University of Hong Kong – told HKFP that the changes were to be welcomed: “[I]ndeed if Hong Kong had been making decisions on the basis of science and population health the changes could and should have been made months ago.”

He added: “Whilst I understand the arguments for masks there is no rational scientific argument for mask mandates, especially outdoors, at this stage of the pandemic”

Quarantine-free travel with mainland

The city’s government also told local media on Tuesday that it hoped to see quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the mainland resumed by mid-January, after China announced that it would drop quarantine requirements for arrivals from January 8.

Health chief Lo told the press on Tuesday that Hongkongers will have priority accessing health resources and vaccines as the border reopens. Non-residents receiving jabs from private healthcare providers will not affect the government’s supply of vaccination for residents, said the health secretary.

Medical surveillance quarantine airport traveller hotel QR code family reunion arrivals
Arrivals at Hong Kong airport. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Meanwhile, other countries are planning to tighten their borders for arrivals from China. On Tuesday, Japan announced that it will require all Chinese arrivals to undergo Covid-19 tests upon their arrival, starting on Friday. Arrivals – including from Hong Kong and Macao – will also be limited to four airports only.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said it was “difficult” for them to grasp China’s situation, as “the information on infections differs between the central and regional governments, as well as between the government and the private sector.”

Meanwhile, the US is considering restrictions on arrivals from China.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.