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LCQ14: Dissemination of epidemic information
     ​Following is a question by the Hon Paul Tse and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan, in the Legislative Council today (June 1):
     It was reported by the media that in mid-May this year, a member of the Government's Expert Advisory Panel (EAP member) pointed out that the sixth wave of epidemic outbreak could be imminent in Hong Kong, and a geriatric specialist also told people "to meet whoever they need to meet these two weeks". In addition, the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) even issued an important appeal to its teachers and school staff as well as students on the development of the epidemic, once triggering panic among members of the public. On the other hand, in late-April this year, a professor of a medical school at a university pointed out in a programme of a local television station that the chance of an epidemic rebound in Hong Kong in the coming six to 12 months was relatively low, while an assistant professor of the School of Public Health and Primary Care of The Chinese University of Hong Kong also predicted that the outbreak would peak in autumn and winter. Some members of the public have criticised that EAP members and university professors disseminated information on the epidemic which runs counter to each other and expressed divergent opinions on the assessment of the epidemic development, and these have confused members of the public, which can easily cause social panic and lead to chaotic situations, such as the hoarding of food, medicine and anti-epidemic items. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) of the Government's current mechanism for disseminating epidemic information;
(2) whether the Faculty of Medicine of HKU discussed with the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the Government and obtained the consent of the CHP before issuing the aforesaid appeal to its teachers and students; if so, of the details, and the justifications for the CHP agreeing to HKU's dissemination of the relevant information to its teachers and students but not disclosing such information to the public itself;
(3) as some members of the public have indicated that there are different channels for disseminating epidemic information at present, whether the Government will consider requesting EAP members to consolidate their opinions and unify their stance before receiving media interviews, so as to disseminate consistent information to members of the public and avoid placing themselves in a similar situation of self-contradiction and causing unnecessary panic to the public; and
(4) whether the Government has requested EAP members to declare interests in respect of any direct or indirect relationships that they have with any international or local pharmaceutical or retail enterprises, so as to ensure that their assessment of the epidemic development will be regarded by members of the public as objective and credible; if so, of the details of their declarations; if not, whether the Government will expeditiously request EAP members to make such declarations?
     Upon the emergence of a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus infection in Hong Kong in January 2020, the SAR Government activated the highest Emergency Response Level under the Preparedness and Response Plan for Novel Infectious Disease of Public Health Significance. The Chief Executive (CE) also appointed an expert advisory panel (EAP) comprising experts to advise the Government on such areas as public health, epidemiology and clinical experience, thereby strengthening the science-based anti-epidemic work. An inter-departmental Steering Committee cum Command Centre led by the CE formulates strategies and initiatives, including those concerning publicity, promotion and information dissemination, having regard to the epidemic development and the advice of the EAP.

     In consultation with the Information Services Department, the reply to the various parts of the question raised by the Hon Paul Tse is as follows:
(1) The Government has been disseminating epidemic information with the greatest transparency to quickly and effectively provide the public with the latest and accurate information on the epidemic situation. Since the anti-epidemic work started, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the Department of Health (DH) and the Hospital Authority have held press conferences almost daily at 4.30 pm; during the fifth wave of the epidemic, the CE hosted press conferences for more than 30 days, with relevant Secretaries of Bureaux and Directors of Departments where necessary, to explain to the public the latest epidemic development, the Government's analysis and assessment of the epidemic as well as its anti-epidemic strategies, and to make clarifications in response to rumours and misunderstandings in society. Related official information has also been released to the public through different means and channels, including the CE's monthly reports on the Government anti-epidemic work, officials' media interviews, social media pages and blogs of the CE and officials, the COVID-19 thematic website, press releases, news.gov.hk, social platforms such as Tamar Talk, television and radio announcements in the public interest (APIs), leaflets and posters.
     Specifically, to facilitate one-stop access to the latest epidemic information, the Government has launched the COVID-19 thematic website, the designated website of the COVID-19 Vaccination Programme, the online Interactive Map Dashboard and the Hong Kong Vaccination Dashboard. Infographics of Statistics on 5th Wave of COVID-19 and Provisional Data Analysis on COVID-19 Reported Death Cases have also been released daily and weekly respectively to provide epidemic information and scientific evidence in simple language and with data presented to make it easier to understand.

     In addition, the Government has been disseminating information on the epidemic and preventive measures to the public through various channels, making active use of online and social media platforms such as Facebook page, YouTube channel, and the GovHK Notifications mobile application, as well as traditional media such as television and radio, Health Education Infoline, newspapers and magazines, and media interviews, etc. to disseminate anti-epidemic messages to the public.
     To target people of different ages, the Government has been using diversified means in promoting and disseminating information, including information charts, video clips and animations that are simple and easy to understand. The Government has also been producing and broadcasting television and radio APIs containing anti-epidemic information, producing posters and promotional flyers, placing advertisements in newspapers, and displaying large promotional banners at various government venues and major thoroughfares in a timely manner to disseminate the latest epidemic information and related health advice.

     The CHP will continue to maintain close liaison with different stakeholders through various platforms, and keep them informed of the latest epidemic situation and preventive measures; and disseminate health-related messages to different people with their collaboration and support.

     In response to inaccurate remarks being made on the Internet from time to time, the Government has stepped up its multi-level and proactive monitoring of the situation, and promptly issued press releases and social media posts to make clarifications and prevent the public from being misled.
(2) and (3) Since the emergence of the epidemic, the Government has based its anti-epidemic work on the best available science and research evidence under the science-based principle, with a view to formulating appropriate strategies and measures to stabilise the epidemic situation. The CE appointed several experts to form an EAP at the beginning of the anti-epidemic fight. To target major communicable diseases of public health importance, six scientific committees comprising experts from the DH and other organisations have been formed under the DH to gather expertise and experience from various specialties. The scientific committees have convened meetings, regularly reported their discussion results and work, and advised the Government of their views and consensus based on the latest scientific knowledge and evidence on COVID-19. The experts' consensus and recommendations on the epidemic and vaccination as well as relevant discussion papers are available on the websites (www.chp.gov.hk/en/static/24002.html and www.covidvaccine.gov.hk/en/expert) for public inspection. The CHP also keeps the public informed of the related information through channels such as press releases.
     All members of the EAP and scientific committees are experts in the related field. Apart from giving advice to the Government, they may also give media interviews or provide information and professional advice on the epidemic to the staff or teachers and students of their organisations as well as the general public, either in their personal capacity or on behalf of their organisations, contributing their efforts to fight the epidemic. Members of the public, as a matter of course, should pay attention to the information on the epidemic and anti-epidemic measures formally disseminated by the Government through different channels.
(4) The EAP is not a standing body. Its members give advice to the CE and the Government, and are not directly involved in the formulation of government policies. The six scientific committees under the DH, on the other hand, are standing bodies, and have a mechanism in place requiring members to declare their interests such as their involvement in companies or projects. Irrespective of whether advice is given by experts of the EAP or the scientific committees, when listening to such advice, the Government has all along strived to strike a balance having regard to such factors as public health, our economic needs and public acceptance in order to put in place the most appropriate anti-epidemic policies and measures.
Ends/Wednesday, June 1, 2022
Issued at HKT 14:00
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