Editorial : Slow-to-act Government Lifts Mask Rules Late

【明報專訊】Hong Kong's return to normal is slow: even the long overdue cancellation of mask rules has yet to happen. While neighbouring regions had gradually loosened masking restrictions recently, the SAR government has not made a specific announcement as of yesterday (27 February).

It has been some time since Hong Kong lifted most anti-pandemic measures. Mask rules are the only remaining social distancing measures. It has been over three years into the COVID pandemic, and many people's daily habits have changed. Putting masks on is one of them. Unlike people in the West, East Asians are relatively less resistant to wearing a face mask for pandemic prevention. But for many, going out without one is still more convenient. As the impact of the pandemic wears off, various parts of East Asia have announced the relaxation — or the complete revocation — of their mask requirements in recent months, allowing the public to show their faces. In contrast, Hong Kong still has wide-ranging indoor and outdoor mask restrictions. An expert has described Hong Kong as perhaps the only region in the world where mask rules are still in place.

When the dynamic zero-COVID policy was in place on the mainland, as part of China, Hong Kong was responsible to take part in "joint prevention and control". Compared with many places in the region, Hong Kong was slow to dismantle entry quarantine and other pandemic prevention policies. Now that the mainland has fully reopened its borders and returned to normal, the conditions are absolutely ripe for Hong Kong to completely remove its mask order given its hybrid immunity level. However, as of last week, the authorities had only reiterated their previous statements, saying they hoped that the mask rules could be lifted after the winter flu peak. When Macao beat Hong Kong to the punch and greatly relaxed its mask requirement, there was a chorus of discussions in society questioning why Hong Kong "lags behind Macao". Rumours only spread yesterday that the Hong Kong government plans to withdraw the mask mandate within days.

In the past three years, the COVID situation see-sawed. To keep it from heating up again, the adjustments of anti-epidemic measures were understandably cautious. But the global COVID epidemic is near its end. In the same old mindset, the authorities have remained "on their toes" and wobbled. This shows that the government is indecisive and unable to adapt its policies to changes.

Actively promoting to the world Hong Kong's full return to normal, SAR officials are chanting "Hello Hong Kong" these days. The tardy revocation of mask rules inevitably affects some foreigners in judging whether Hong Kong has fully returned to normal. But on the issue of cancelling the mask order as soon as possible, the authorities have given no concrete indication and appeared to be in no rush to make progress. Even if they announce it today (28 February), it will hardly rid the impression that the policy change "has been forged ahead by Macao's beating Hong Kong to it".

After more than three years into the pandemic, most citizens should be able to judge for themselves when and where it is appropriate to mask up. However, the authorities may also provide some "gentle reminders" for citizens. The withdrawal of mask rules will mark Hong Kong's official entry into the post-pandemic era. However, there are still a few things that need mopping up. The authorities should cancel as soon as possible restrictive measures such as rapid antigen tests for primary school students before school, under the principle that anything that can be done without should be done without. Only then can society truly and fully return to normal.

明報社評2023.02.28:撤口罩令姍姍來遲 政府反應慢損形象







■ Glossary 生字 /

wear off : to gradually disappear or stop

dismantle : to end an organisation or system gradually in an organised way

ripe : ready or suitable for sth to happen

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