Hong Kong’s move to mandate the use of its Covid-19 contact-tracing app at government buildings will hit homeless residents and other vulnerable groups in need of services hard given that many lack smartphones, an NGO has warned.
The new policy, seen as a first step towards placating Beijing’s concerns over the eventual reopening of the border with mainland China, comes as local officials have been under fire for failing to secure a deal despite an improving vaccination rate and months with effectively no local coronavirus cases.
Concerns over the plan emerged as Hong Kong on Friday confirmed new two imported Covid-19 cases, travellers from the Philippines and the Maldives. They took the city’s overally tally to 12,313 infections, with 213 related deaths.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
A meeting last month between experts and officials from the Hong Kong and mainland sides made little progress, with Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu announcing on his return that the city needed to improve in a number of areas, including strengthening its contact-tracing efforts.
Officials previously said one option would be to improve the existing “Leave Home Safe” contact-tracing app for people hoping to travel to the mainland. More than 4.8 million users had downloaded the app as of July.
On Thursday, the administration announced that from November 1, anyone entering government buildings would need to use the mobile app to scan a QR code.
A spokesman from the Civil Service Bureau later clarified the policy would generally cover facilities such as government offices, museums, libraries, swimming pools and sports stadiums. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, however, was unable to confirm whether wet markets or even public toilets would be affected, saying only “practical circumstances and operational needs” would be referenced when the relevant decisions were made.
Anne Sit Kim-ping, of the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), said she feared the homeless, who relied on freely available public facilities such as libraries and sports centres, would now be unable to enter, given that many did not own a smartphone.
The homeless also often sought help in processing aid documents from various government offices, including the Social Welfare Department, Home Affairs Department and judicial buildings, Sit told a radio programme.
“We are concerned that homeless people will find it very difficult to look for help when this new requirement sets in,” she said.
“During the summer months, public libraries are one of the few places where homeless people stay indoors during the day. Street sleepers also use free public access to sports centres to refill water bottles or take a simple shower.”
The number of registered homeless people in Hong Kong increased from 787 in 2014 to a record high of 1,562 at the end of this June, according to government figures.
Sit estimated that just 10 to 20 per cent of homeless people the NGO worked with owned a working smartphone, adding that charities typically only lent basic phones that did not support mobile apps.
Under Thursday’s rule change, the option of manually filling out paper forms in lieu of scanning the app will no longer be available at government venues.
However, exemptions will be granted to individuals younger than 12 or aged 65 and above, as well as disabled people who cannot use the app. Those groups will need to sign a form with their names, the first four digits or letters on their identity documents, contact numbers and the date and time of their visit.
A street sleeper in her 60s at Wong Nai Chung tunnel said she would be affected by the new rule.
Juddy, who came from Britain 15 years ago, said she had no job and had to take care of her partner, who uses a wheelchair, all day.
She gets tap water from public toilets to boil and drink, visits public libraries every week, and seeks help to process documents from various government offices from time to time.
Having had two previous phones stolen, she has lived without one for about four months, which would bar her from public facilities under the new rule.
“It’s not convenient,” Juddy said. “People are complaining. If they’re old, they can’t do anything. Give the phones to the old people. Let people in.”
Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu said while the new rule could “marginally” push more people into using the app, the government needed to beware of the “human impact” of its policies so as not to lose public support for them.
Meanwhile, a caller to the same radio programme noted that some smartphones, specifically those made by the mainland’s Huawei, do not have “Leave Home Safe” available in their app stores.
The Post has contacted the Information and Technology Bureau for confirmation.
The app was launched last November to help health authorities trace the close contacts of Covid-19 patients. The system sparked privacy concerns among residents, who feared the government could use the app, which remains voluntary, to track their whereabouts.
The software operates as a digital logbook when users scan QR codes at venues such as restaurants, bars, fitness centres and government buildings to record their presence.
When someone who has visited the same location tests positive, users are notified by the app to go for a coronavirus test as soon as possible.
Additional Reporting by Xinlu Liang
More from South China Morning Post:
This article Coronavirus: Hong Kong’s new ‘Leave Home Safe’ mandate could leave homeless, others lacking smartphones without access to key services, NGO warns first appeared on South China Morning Post