Hong Kong to scrap Covid mask rules for both indoors, outdoors from Wednesday after 3 years
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Hong Kong to scrap Covid mask rules for both indoors, outdoors from Wednesday after 3 years

Hongkongers will be able to walk around mask-free for the first time in almost three years. (Photo: Sam Tsang)
Hongkongers will be able to walk around mask-free for the first time in almost three years. (Photo: Sam Tsang)

Hongkongers and tourists can go mask-free from Wednesday as the city finally lifts its last major Covid-19 restriction after almost three years.

At a media session before the Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu announced the city's indoor and outdoor mask requirements, as well as on public transport, would be scrapped from March 1.

But wearing face coverings would still be required at some premises with administrative functions, such as care homes for the elderly and hospitals, he added.

Lee also repeatedly ducked questions on whether his announcement was prompted by neighbouring city Macau's decision to lift its general outdoor mask-wearing rules from Monday.

"It is because of the overall assessment and factors taken into account that I made the decision," he said. "I told people two months ago that this was an issue that I would be actively monitoring and also examining when would be an appropriate time [to lift the mandate]."

The city leader said the move was based on the local coronavirus situation and the winding down of a case surge of influenza and other respiratory viruses.

"The data showed the local epidemic situation was under control and there was no big rebound. Hong Kong has already built a wide and comprehensive immunity barrier," Lee said, adding that there had been no outbreaks among high-risk populations, such as hospital patients and staff, or schools and care homes for the elderly.

Lee also said Hong Kong's epidemic situation had not worsened as a result of any coronavirus mutations.

"The overall risk is under control. It is now a suitable time to fully cancel the mask order," he said.

"We are starting to resume normalcy comprehensively. That will be very beneficial to economic development, international competitiveness as well as our activities involving everyone in Hong Kong."

Health minister Lo Chung-mau said the axing of the mask mandate signified Hong Kong was returning to a state of normality.

"The lift of the mask mandate means an official end to all social-distancing measures. We hope that tomorrow, March 1, will be a better day. We can all show our smiles and say 'Hello Hong Kong'," Lo said, referring to the government's recent global campaign to attract visitors to the city.

Lo explained authorities had decided to change the policy in one-go instead of gradually because of the minimal effect such an approach would bring.

"The anti-epidemic effect of keeping mask order [in some places] is not big. Also, it would be rather complicated and difficult to enforce the rules, and inconvenient for the public," he said.

The minister added that the Centre for Health Protection would issue guidelines to people with respiratory symptoms or long-term illnesses on wearing masks in poorly ventilated locations.

Hong Kong's mask mandate came into effect in July 2020 and has been regularly renewed, with the latest review granting a policy extension until March 8.

Under the soon-to-be-scrapped policy, people visiting country parks or doing strenuous physical activities are exempt from wearing face coverings outdoors.

Lee previously said the mask mandate should remain in effect until the warmer season comes for fear of a resurgence of flu cases.

Ahead of Lee's official announcement, government pandemic adviser Professor Lau Yu-lung said the "long-awaited" lifting of the policy would be "welcomed by the whole of Hong Kong".

Expressing his support for the government's decision to axe the mandate in one go, he argued the move would be easier to implement and for the public to understand than a step-by-step easing.

Lau added that he believed people would wear masks on public transport without prompting from authorities. "We should believe in residents' ability to manage their health and assess their safety," he said.

However, the health expert said more focus should be placed on helping children adjust to the change, as some youngsters had grown up wearing masks.

"It takes time to explain to them that it is actually normal to go maskless," he said. "They might be anxious and we should let them decide whether to wear it or not instead of forcing them."

Lau also called on residents to respect each other's choices on whether they wore masks.

Under the amended rules in Macau, supervisors of most indoor venues have discretion over whether visitors should wear the coverings, while authorities there still require people to use them while taking public transport, as well as at hospitals and care homes.

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