Hong Kong’s leader John Lee has said he does not think the city should set up an independent inquiry into the government’s Covid-19 response, a suggestion first raised by health experts who said a thorough probe would help improve the handling of any future pandemics.

Chief Executive John Lee meeting the press. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Addressing reporters at a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lee said he “disagreed” with conducting an independent investigation.

“In the past three years, around the world, we faced a new disease… there’s never a best practice or best way to deal with such an issue,” he said.

“Over the past seven months, we have taken stock of our experience and we’ve been enhancing our measures,” he said.

Two experts advising the Hong Kong government’s Covid-19 response, microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung and professor of respiratory medicine David Hui, said last week that the government should conduct an independent inquiry so the city can be better prepared for potential health crises in the future.

An independent investigation was completed after the SARS outbreak in 2003, Yuen said.

“We saw 12,000 to 13,000 deaths [related to Covid-19]. Why don’t we conduct a thorough investigation and clarify what we should do in future?” Yuen said on Commercial Radio last week. “Speaking for myself, if I’m unlucky, as an infectious disease expert, I might see a third pandemic during my lifetime. Hong Kong must be prepared for it.”

Wallace Lau, the University of Hong Kong’s chair of rheumatology and clinical immunology, said meanwhile that the government should conduct a review of its Covid-19 response, but that a committee was not necessary. Such a review, he added, should take place after the pandemic ends.

Yuen Kwok-yung meeting the press. File photo: Video screenshot, via RTHK.

In a reply to HKFP after Lee’s press conference, Yuen said he was “not referring to a legally binding investigation committee which can punish people.”

“I am proposing an objective independent review committee so that we can improve our system to reduce the number of deaths from 13,000 under Covid-19 to a much lower number such as 1,700, as [in] the case of Singapore, when another similar pandemic comes,” he added.

Ivan Hung, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the University of Hong Kong’s medical faculty, said on Tuesday that he also agreed an independent inquiry was necessary.

Masks to stay

Meanwhile, Lee said the government would consider axing the mandatory mask policy after the winter flu season.

“We have to… ensure that we will be able to pass the winter surge, and when we successfully overcome this challenge, there will be big room for consideration to see how, and when, we will remove the mask [order],” Lee added. Historically, Hong Kong’s winter flu season lasts from January to March or April.

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

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 mask rule is one of the city’s last remaining Covid-19 rules. Having enforced strict pandemic measures for three years, Hong Kong has gradually dropped most restrictions in recent weeks.

As of Monday, Covid patients no longer have to isolate, and in December, authorities scrapped a policy that required proof of vaccination to enter restaurants.

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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.