A top Hong Kong microbiologist has said March or April – when the weather turns warmer – would be an ideal time for the government to scrap its mandatory mask order, one of the city’s last remaining Covid-19 policies.

Pedestrians on a Hong Kong street. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Yuen Kwok-yung, who heads the microbiology department at the University of Hong Kong, said on a Commercial Radio show on Thursday morning that daily temperatures in the spring would be “over 20 degrees [Celsius],” by which time the virus would be weaker and our inflammatory response less serious.

“Then, we can take off our masks,” Yuen said, although he advised elderly people to still wear a mask during winter months.

Hong Kong has maintained strict Covid-19 rules for three years, announcing a string of relaxations – including axing isolation orders for Covid patients from next Monday and scrapping a policy that required proof of vaccination to enter restaurants – in recent weeks. They followed the nationwide easing of restrictions in mainland China from early December.

Yuen Kwok-yung. Photo: GovHK.

Public opinion on whether the city should drop its compulsory mask wearing policy is mixed, with one survey showing that 60 per cent of the 40,000 respondents polled supported mandatory masking.

Chief Secretary Eric Chan said on Sunday that the government had no timetable for scrapping the mask rule. However, he said the city was eyeing the removal of another Covid rule – a PCR Covid-19 test requirement for travellers going to mainland China amid complaints that it was inconvenient.

Quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the mainland resumed earlier this month, in time for the Lunar New Year holiday, which began on Sunday.

Hong Kong recorded 2,295 Covid-19 infections on Wednesday and 27 related deaths. The daily caseload has fallen gradually since late December, when infections peaked at almost 30,000. To date, the city has seen more than 2.86 million reported cases and 13,230 people who tested positive for the coronavirus have died.

‘Post-mask wave’

Hong Kong has mandated mask wearing in all public places, including outdoors, since July 2020. A number of health experts have said that compulsory masking was not a rational requirement at this stage in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The city is one of the last remaining places in the world that still enforces a blanket rule on masking, a policy that many countries have long since dropped.

The accident and emergency department at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong on January 4, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Medical expert Leung Chi-chiu said on Wednesday that it would be best to wait two weeks – until after Lunar New Year festivities are over – to consider cancelling the compulsory mask order.

Meanwhile, Yuen warned on the Thursday radio show that Hong Kong could see a “post-mask wave” of infections that could place severe strain on the city’s medical facilities.

“But we will have to endure this pain. Every country has endured this pain,” he said. “As I said back in February or March of 2020, this virus will not leave us.”

Covid-19 testing booths. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The microbiologist also called on the government to conduct a thorough inquiry into its handling of Covid-19.

“This year is the 20th anniversary of the SARS epidemic,” Yuen said. “Back then, we had an independent investigative committee look into [the government’s response]… I think Hong Kong should do the same this time.”

He added that there was a chance of the world seeing a “third pandemic,” and that Hong Kong needed to be well prepared.

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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.