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Government adjusts local anti-epidemic measures
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     With a view to enabling citizens to resume their normal daily lives in a continuous and orderly manner, in light of the epidemic development and relevant risks assessment by the Department of Health (DH), the Government announced on December 28 that local anti-epidemic measures will be further adjusted starting from December 29, including removing definition of close contacts and ceasing issuance of quarantine orders, removing the Vaccine Pass requirement, lifting social distancing measures except mask-wearing, adjusting testing arrangements and maintaining local healthcare services.
      
     The adjustments that will come into effect from 0.00am on December 29 include –
      
Removing the definition of close contacts and ceasing issuance of quarantine orders
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     Following three years of epidemic in Hong Kong, the community immunity against COVID-19 has reached a very high level due to the increased vaccination and infection rates during the fifth wave of epidemic. Coupled with the enhancement of prevention and treatment capacities of the healthcare system, the risk posed by COVID-19 to local public health has changed.
      
     The large number of infected cases in the community not only makes it difficult to define close contacts, but also greatly increases the social costs of quarantine orders in anti-epidemic efforts. In order to further resume social and economic activities and restore normal lives of citizens, the Government decided to cease the quarantine arrangements for close contacts (including household members living with the infected persons) and not to define close contacts and issue quarantine orders to them. In other words, household members of infected persons will not be subject to mandatory quarantine and testing and they can go out on their will. The DH will issue relevant health advice with a view to reducing the transmission risk, including advising them to conduct rapid antigen tests (RATs) daily until Day 5 on a voluntary basis (the day following testing or collection of sample by the infected household member is counted as Day 1; if there is no such testing or sample collection record, the day that the infected household member receives the positive test result is counted as Day 1) and self-monitor their health conditions. 
      
     Meanwhile, the Health Officer will cancel the quarantine orders issued earlier. In other words, those who are currently under quarantine at their places of residence or quarantine facilities will no longer be required to continue their quarantine starting from December 29. The Government will arrange for those staying in the quarantine facilities to depart in an orderly manner and gazette the notice of relevant cancellation arrangements.
      
     In view of the aforementioned adjustments, the Government will suspend the distribution of anti-epidemic kits to close contacts starting from December 29, and cease to announce the infection status of senior officials and staff of their offices.
      
     A Government spokesperson emphasised that the existing isolation arrangement for infected persons remains unchanged for now, and the Government will continue to distribute anti-epidemic kits to them. The Government will closely monitor the local epidemic development and make reference to the latest development of isolation arrangements for persons infected with COVID-19 (particularly for infected persons who are asymptomatic) around the world to adjust relevant measures in Hong Kong in a timely manner.
      
Lifting the Vaccine Pass requirement
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     Since the launch of the Vaccine Pass, it has effectively encouraged citizens to get vaccinated and raised the vaccination rate. The second and third dose vaccination rates have increased substantially from 71 per cent and 23 per cent in late February this year to the current 93 per cent and 83 per cent respectively, building a strong immunity barrier for Hong Kong. Taking into account that the third dose vaccination rate plus the effective vaccination rate equivalent to having received three doses has reached 94 per cent, the Government will remove the statutory Vaccine Pass requirement under the Prevention and Control of Disease (Vaccine Pass) Regulation (Cap. 599L), including the Provisional Vaccine Pass arrangement currently applicable to inbound travellers.
      
     The spokesman stressed that COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe cases and deaths from infection. The Government will continue to encourage and provide convenience to citizens who have not received suitable doses of vaccine to get vaccinated as early as possible, in particular high-risk persons such as the elderly and the young.
      
Lifting social distancing measures except mask-wearing
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     On the premise of safeguarding public health, the Government has been striving to balance the social and economic needs in suitably adjusting social distancing measures such that citizens' daily lives may resume normal in an orderly manner.
      
     Considering the latest epidemic development and citizens' aspiration for resuming normal daily lives, starting from December 29, the Government will lift all social distancing measures except mask-wearing, including the restrictions and requirements in relation to the operation of catering business premises and scheduled premises under the Prevention and Control of Disease (Requirements and Directions) (Business and Premises) Regulation (Cap. 599F), (e.g. the maximum number of persons allowed in each group, distancing requirements between groups, closure of facilities such as steam and sauna facilities, requirements for staff of premises to undergo RATs, etc.), and restriction in relation to group gatherings in public places under the Prevention and Control of Disease (Prohibition on Gathering) Regulation (Cap. 599G).
      
     At this stage, however, the Government will maintain the mandatory mask-wearing requirements under the Prevention and Control of Disease (Wearing of Mask) Regulation (Cap. 599I). This means that citizens are required to continue to wear a mask in accordance with the existing requirements when they are on public transport carriers, in specified public places, and at catering business premises and scheduled premises under Cap. 599F. In accordance with existing requirements, persons are allowed not to wear masks if they are present in outdoor public places in country parks and special areas as defined in section 2 of the Country Parks Ordinance (Cap. 208). Details of the mask-wearing requirements applicable to catering business premises and scheduled premises are set out in Annex. The Government will review the relevant requirements from time to time and make timely announcements on the latest adjustments.
      
     Wearing mask is an effective measure to prevent the transmission of various respiratory viruses while protecting the wearer and others. Particularly, Hong Kong is facing the winter surge of influenza, so it is imperative to prevent citizens from coinfection of COVID-19 and influenza which would result in severe conditions. Mask-wearing would also help safeguard the healthcare system in Hong Kong.
      
Enhancing testing arrangements and protecting target groups
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     The Government will continue to endeavour to protect target groups. Apart from patients in public hospitals, special attention is also given in protecting persons in residential care homes and schools so as to reduce their health risk caused by virus transmission.
      
     For residential care homes, various existing testing arrangements will be maintained. All staff members of residential care homes for the elderly (RCHEs) and residential homes for persons with disabilities (RCHDs) are required to conduct RATs daily and undergo a nucleic acid test every two days, with a view to protecting the residents of RCHEs and RCHDs.
      
     The Education Bureau will assess the vaccination situation in schools for reviewing and adjusting the arrangements for conducting RATs, and discuss with schools and seek advice from the Centre for Health Protection.
      
     The Government will suspend the issuance of daily compulsory testing notices for residential buildings. Nevertheless, some 80 community testing centres and stations (CTC/CTSs) in various districts across the city will continue to provide nucleic acid testing services for members of the public, including free nucleic acid testing service for persons undergoing voluntary testing; as well as self-paid nucleic acid testing service for persons who need to obtain test results (such as certifications for travelling purpose).
      
Maintaining local healthcare services
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     The Government will make every effort in protecting local healthcare system and resources and ensure that Hong Kong residents in need will be accorded priority in receiving medical services and drugs. The Hospital Authority (HA) will continue to strengthen its emergency response and medical systems to ensure the efficient utilisation of resources and to improve its handling capacities. Eligible Persons (EP) who are infected will have the priority to receive medical services and drugs.
      
     Starting from December 29, Non-eligible Persons (NEP) (such as non-Hong Kong residents and travellers, etc.) will not be able to receive services at the designated clinics and through tele-consultation services provided by the HA. While the Accident and Emergency Departments of the HA will still provide urgent treatment and services to NEP with genuine urgent medical needs, they are required to pay for the treatment fees according to the established mechanism to be gazetted, which are calculated by costs and at a higher rate than those applicable to EP. If COVID-19 oral drugs (e.g. Paxlovid and Molnupiravir) are prescribed in the treatment process, the non-eligible COVID-19 patients are also required to pay for the relevant drugs.
      
     Private hospitals and clinics have already been allocated COVID-19 oral drugs through the DH and the HA. The Government urges private hospitals and clinics to provide medical services to patients, in order to alleviate the load on the public healthcare system. Moreover, private medical institutions can order the two COVID-19 oral drugs directly from the relevant drugs manufacturers. Non-eligible COVID-19 patients should receive treatment and be prescribed relevant drugs directly from private medical institutions.
      
     The spokesperson emphasised that there is sufficient stock of drugs within the public healthcare system for prescription to COVID-19 patients (including medicine containing paracetamols and the aforementioned oral drugs, etc.). The DH and the HA are also increasing their procurement volumes and will streamline the distribution arrangement to ensure that there are sufficient medical resources to meet local needs.
      
     As regards COVID-19 vaccines, it has all along been the Government's policy objective to ensure sufficient supply of vaccines under the Government's vaccination programme. Hong Kong residents have already been accorded priority to receive free Comirnaty bivalent vaccine and the paediatric and toddler formulation of the Comirnaty vaccine. For Comirnaty ancestral strain and the Sinovac vaccines, only non-Hong Kong residents who can prove to have met the specified staying requirement (i.e. staying for at least 30 days) are eligible for receiving the relevant vaccines as boosters free of charge. 
      
     In addition, it is expected that non-Hong Kong residents would be able to receive Comirnaty bivalent vaccine at private medical institutions at their own expense in the near future. Vaccination for non-Hong Kong residents is provided by the private market and under a system separate from the Government's procurement. The Government will closely monitor the supply of vaccines under the Government's vaccination programme to ensure that the vaccination arrangement of Hong Kong residents will not be affected. Non-Hong Kong residents visiting Hong Kong for a short term of stay will not be allowed to receive free vaccination under the Government's vaccination programme.
         
Continue to monitor the virus trend
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     The Government adheres to the protection of public health and closely monitors the local epidemic development, including maintaining sewage surveillance by collecting sewage samples for virus testing in all districts; inspecting on a random basis the cases admitted to public hospitals and the positive specimens collected at CTC/CTSs; and follows the World Health Organization's advice to keep monitoring the variants of COVID-19 and epidemic development, including the emergence of variants of concern.

     The spokesperson said, "The HKSAR persists in relaxing yet does not give up in fighting against the epidemic. The Government has all along been tackling the COVID-19 epidemic under the principles of science-based and targeted anti-epidemic measures, as well as the proper management of risks and citizen-focused facilitation. While safeguarding the well-being of citizens and protecting the public healthcare system, we also seek to reduce the disruption to normal social activities with a view to achieving the greatest effect with the lowest cost. The Government will closely monitor the mutation of COVID-19 virus and epidemic development, and adjust anti-epidemic measures in a timely manner based on analyses of scientific data."
 
Ends/Thursday, December 29, 2022
Issued at HKT 2:07
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Annex