As Hong Kong lifts its almost three-year-old Covid-19 mask mandate on Wednesday, a medical expert has urged students to take their masks off for the benefit of their education and immune system.

Kindergarten mask (Copy)
A teacher takes off a face mask from a kindergartener during lunchtime. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Speaking to RTHK on Wednesday morning, Ivan Hung, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong, said the city has made the “right decision” to scrap the mask-wearing rule.

On Tuesday, Chief Executive John Lee announced an end to the city’s mask mandate – the last major Covid-19 social distancing measure – that was in place for almost 1,000 days.

The medic said it was because Hong Kong’s winter surge – when the city would normally expect to see seasonal flu – had passed and people had a high level of “hybrid immunity” against Covid-19 through vaccination and infection.

Staff and visitors at hospitals and nursing homes for the elderly or the disabled, however, are still expected to wear masks, although it is no longer required from teachers and students in schools.

Hung agreed with maintaining mask-wearing in hospitals and care homes, saying it would reduce cross infections between medics and patients.

As for schools, Hung said it was “really necessary” for masks to be removed, as students had to see others’ mouths and lip movements when learning languages.

Covid expert committee panel Ivan Hung.
Dr. Ivan Hung. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

The health expert said it was expected that there would be a slight rise in flu infections or other respiratory diseases in schools, but that “was, in fact, good for the pupils.”

According to Hung, mask wearing for young students who have never been infected by upper respiratory diseases does nothing but delay an eventual outbreak. Meanwhile, their immune systems will not be properly developed to defend themselves from these viruses.

“When there is a very low level of epidemic in schools, [not wearing masks] is good for [students’] learning and their immunity,” Hung said.

When asked about pre-school pupils who have not been vaccinated, Hung said he would still not recommend them wearing masks in the long term.

The medic said they should receive their Covid-19 and flu jabs as soon as possible and maintain good personal hygiene to prevent infection instead.

Dr Leung Chi-Chiu
Dr Leung Chi-Chiu. Photo: CGTN screenshot.

Additionally, Hung suggested that the public, especially high-risk groups, should wear masks in crowded places or on public transport. Those who are not fully vaccinated or have not yet had Covid-19 should also keep their masks on to protect themselves from infection, he added.

‘Period for adaptation’

Speaking on the same radio programme, respiratory expert Leung Chi-Chiu urged people to complete their Covid-19 and influenza vaccinations.

“There’s something everyone has to remember… Covid-19 and other respiratory diseases including flu are still spreading in the community,” Leung said.

“After we take our masks off, it now depends on our immunity… which wanes over time,” he added.

The medic also urged the public to set a “period for adaptation” for themselves and try to wear masks in crowded places, on public transport or in areas with vulnerable people.

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Peter Lee

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.