Hong Kong government mandates LeaveHomeSafe app, at a high price

Starting from November 1st, all Hongkongers are required to use the “LeaveHomeSafe” mobile app to scan venue QR codes before entering government premises, as announced by the government last Thursday. 

The new regulation specifically stated that children (aged below 12), elderly (aged 65 or above), and people with disabilities are exempted. Instead, they will be required to to sign a form with their names, first four digits or letters on their identity documents, contact numbers and time of their visit. However, those who cannot afford a smartphone will be barred. “Unwilling to use the app” is not a reason for exemption.=Scanning the LeaveHomeSafe for entry into the Legislative Council Complex in Central and other government premises will soon be mandatory to record visit in Hong Kong, starting on 1 November, 2021 (Monday). Photo: Hannah Lee

A spokesman from the Civil Service Bureau later added that the policy would cover general facilities such as government offices, museums, libraries, pools and sports stadiums. On the other hand, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, was unable to confirm whether wet markets or even public toilets would be affected.

Hong Kong government launched the lifestyle video on Jun 7, 2021 to promote the use of 'LeaveHomeSafe” to keep visit records.
Hong Kong government launched the lifestyle video on 7 June, 2021 to promote the use of 'LeaveHomeSafe” to keep visit records.

What does the policy mean for the vulnerable?

The latest requirements will be a major challenge for underprivileged groups, especially the homeless, since only a fraction of them can afford smartphones.

Not every one has a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone or stable internet connection to keep the app running smoothly, let alone a powered phone.

“The latest requirements will be a major challenge for underprivileged groups, especially the homeless, since only a fraction of them can afford smartphones.” Anne Sit Kim-ping from the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), told an RTHK radio programme last Friday.

Both patients and visitors for hospitals under the Hospital Authority must tap LeaveHomeSafe app starting from next week in Hong Kong. Photo: Hannah Lee.

According to Sit, street sleepers often turned to freely available public facilities like libraries and sports centres. “Public libraries are one of the few places where street-sleepers can stay indoors during the day when it is hot. They can use free public access to sports centres to refill water bottles and take a quick shower, too.”

The homeless also often seek help from various government offices for processing aid documents. Namely the Social Welfare Department, Home Affairs Department and different judicial buildings. 

Sit expressed her fear that the homeless would find it harder to seek help once the new rule comes into effect. Most street sleepers SoCO encountered do not have phones in the first place, as sleeping in parks and public space makes it difficult to keep hold of personal belongings, including their phones and ID cards.

She added that charities helping the homeless normally just lent out basic phones that did not support mobile apps.

Grassroots groups and people with intellectual disabilities will bear the brunt as well.

Tracing back: Is the contact-tracking system discriminatory to begin with?

When the app was first launched last November, the government declared its use would be voluntary, although officials also said it may be made mandatory “if necessary” to trace the contacts of Covid-19 patients. Since then, many eateries have made the app mandatory for customers so as to benefit from eased social distancing restrictions.

Before the new rule, the “LeaveHomeSafe” app had been required at entrance for type C (4 people per table) and type D  (6 people per table) venues. Restaurants could divide themselves into 4 types of operation modes “ABCD“, which include the following features:

Modes of operation for catering businesss from October 14 till October 27 (Wednesday) in Hong Kong. Design: Hannah Lee.

Dai Kwai-Doon, an 85-year-old female resident, who lives with her family in Yau Ma Tei, felt that yum-cha with her loved ones could not be as enjoyable as before, because of the arrangement. “I have never owned a smartphone because it is too complicated for me,” Dai said. She had to dine at separate tables when her group exceeded 2 people.

A lady in passing checks out the QR code of LeaveHomeSafe at a local restaurant in Yau Ma Tei on October 26, 2021 (Tuesday) during lunch hour. Photo: Hannah Lee

“As much as I wanted to hang out with my friends at restaurants, I had no idea how to use it,” Dai expressed, “it would be a waste of money if I bought and kept one just for the sake of an app.”

Dai said the contact-tracking app was convenient for tech-savvy young people but not so for people who do not use technology as much. 

While the new rule could push more people into using the app,  it is crucial for the government to beware of the human impact of the policy.

The system has incited months of privacy concerns among residents, fearing that the authority could track their presence through the app.

Coronavirus control in Hong Kong 

Hong Kong had zero local infections for 51 days until October 8, when an airport cargo terminal worker was tested positive. The city of 7.4 million has recorded 12,331 cases and 213 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The announcement of the new rule came as the city recorded six new imported cases.

Hong Kong experiences at least 3 cases of COVID-19 daily over the recent week. Photo: Hannah Lee.

Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, Secretary for the Civil Service, responded on Sunday that for vulnerable groups who do not have smartphones or who do not know how to use “LeaveHomeSafe”, various government departments would make decisions based on “actual circumstances and operational needs”. These individuals may be exempted and have to register their personal data on paper instead. 

However, the administration has not yet introduced a clear set of guidelines on minimising the burden of underprivileged groups.

“We hope that it will encourage different private enterprises to follow and implement the requirement of using the app in a more extensive and stringent manner,” a government spokesman declared in an announcement. 

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