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Hong Kong's Covid-19 contact tracing app not the most important tool, say experts

People entering eateries may soon have to use the app, as part of Hong Kong's efforts to align its measures more closely to that in China.
People entering eateries may soon have to use the app, as part of Hong Kong's efforts to align its measures more closely to that in China.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - Hong Kong's contact tracing app LeaveHomeSafe, which is facing a slow take-up due to inertia and distrust, is a current weak link in the government's anti-pandemic strategy, but experts believe the app is not the most essential tool in controlling the situation.

The app is described by some experts as an "adjunctive tool" that is used to passively remind people to get tested if they have been exposed to an infectious case within a short distance or within a confined high-risk environment.

On Wednesday (Nov 3), the government said it is working on improving and simplifying the app to make it more user-friendly for seniors.

And as soon as mid-November, people entering all eateries may have to use the app, as part of Hong Kong's efforts to align its measures more closely to that in the mainland, in a bid to persuade the Chinese authorities to scrap quarantine requirements for Hong Kong visitors.

On Tuesday, lawmaker Michael Tien told public broadcaster RTHK that mainland officials hope the app can be something they can rely on to trace any infected Hong Kong resident who travels across the border.

Mr Kwok Wang Hing, chairman of the Eating Establishment Employees General Union, said all eateries have the LeaveHomeSafe QR code for customers to scan, but the problem lies with the latter.

"It is difficult to force LeaveHomeSafe on the catering industry because using the app lies with the customer... During an inspection by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, if the officers find that there are some people who did not use the app, the restaurant will be downgraded to a Category A business model," he said.

There are four categories of eateries, depending on the vaccination level of staff and customers, and the eatery's use of LeaveHomeSafe. Under Category A, eateries can operate only between 5am and 6pm, with no more than two persons at one table, whereas Category D restaurants can operate till 2am and have up to 12 people a table.

Resistance to using the app stems from public distrust and privacy issues.

The government previously said that the app requires access to storage space on users' phones to save the check-in information. Cloud-based technology is also used to convert images into text, and requires access to a user's mobile network, media and files.

Despite officials highlighting that the app does not automatically send users' data to the authorities, some remain hesitant about it.

This week, the app was made mandatory for people entering government premises, libraries, wet markets and public hospitals, with only those above 65 or under 12 exempted.

But the new rule created confusion and inconvenience, as some elderly residents and housewives did not have smartphones, while others bought second-hand phones specifically to use the app.

Dr Leung Chi Chiu from the Hong Kong Medical Association said the success of the city's control of the pandemic depended more on the "health consciousness" of the people and their eagerness to take protective measures.

He noted that the app records only visits to sites where the QR codes are scanned, so it is suitable for use only in areas where people are in close contact or face risks of exposure to airborne transmission such as dining facilities and gyms.


Despite officials highlighting that the app does not automatically send users' data to the authorities, some remain hesitant about it. PHOTO: AFP

"Without a suitable legal framework that allows the use of a mobile phone as a unique personal identifier, there is no sure way to ensure 100 per cent coverage, so we should therefore focus only on those crossing the border," added Dr Leung.

Asked if Hong Kong's contact tracing is a ticking time bomb, epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling from the University of Hong Kong said it is not a major concern as imported cases in the city are at such low levels.

In the event of any local outbreaks, more stringent measures would be needed and the app might not be an essential part of the response, he said.

Prof Cowling noted that the most important feature of the mainland's health code app, as compared with Hong Kong's, is its ability to restrict movement for certain people.

This would complement the Chinese authorities' use of an individual's mobile phone location, facial recognition on security cameras, as well as city or district lockdowns.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong health officials on Wednesday announced that almost 1.9 million people in groups vulnerable to Covid-19 will be able to book a third jab from Friday (Nov 5) and receive the shot next Thursday (Nov 11) at the earliest.

Hong Kong has maintained its 26-day streak of zero local cases, adding only three imported cases on Wednesday. This brings the city's total tally so far to over 12,300 infections and 213 deaths.

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