Hong Kong’s mask mandate is an international embarrassment and should be scrapped immediately.

A recent trip to the UK revealed in glaring detail just how nonsensical the present arrangements are, and how they are undermining our prospects for economic recovery. On boarding the aircraft at Chek Lap Kok there is an announcement that wearing a mask on board is compulsory (except when eating or drinking). This is followed by distribution to all passengers of a welcome drink, requiring immediate removal of the mask.

The entertainment/information package prefaces every programme with a series of announcements including a very informative video explanation by a senior Cathay staff member explaining the special measures taken to ensure the air on board is as clean and safe as possible. There is a complete change of cabin air every two to three minutes. Incoming air is thoroughly filtered and the flow of air is not between passengers but rather from ceiling to floor. In other words, this is some of the cleanest air on the planet but you are not supposed to breathe it directly.

As the wheels touch down in London there is a further announcement on behalf of our health department, warning about monkeypox.

The return journey is similar. At the gate a staff member is deployed to make sure you have your mask ready. The onboard events are repeated, including on landing in Hong Kong the warning about monkeypox.

If the situation in the aircraft is confused enough, the image presented on the ground is far worse. As hundreds of passengers from all over the world queue for immigration, one group of them really stands out: many of those from Hong Kong are still wearing their masks. Nobody else in the terminal is.

It doesn’t matter how many announcements our top officials make that Hong Kong is back, everything is open, normality has returned. Thousands of people can see for themselves in the most graphic way possible that things are not normal. And this scene is being repeated many times a day, in airports all over the world. What impact do we think this is having on potential tourists, or businessmen, or investors, or the talents we are working so hard to attract? All the campaigns we are actively planning in these areas risk coming to naught. And they don’t even know about the monkeypox warning yet.

I am sure Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po will do a good job of talking up Hong Kong at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But anyone following him back to the airport to fly to Hong Kong will quickly get a different picture.

Naturally in such circumstances there is community pushback. On board the plane I was on, the passengers divided into two distinct groups. One wore their masks throughout the flight, the other sipped the orange juice slowly then replaced it with another beverage and remained maskless.

Similarly in our theme parks recently, in the fresh open air, guests seem to be lingering over their soft drinks, or ice creams or popcorn so they can remain maskless longer, then when they do push them up over their face again not covering their nose. Surreptitiously the government is losing the battle of public opinion.

I understand the case for masks. It was valid for the first 14 months of Covid, when there were no vaccines, and maybe for the next few months after that so people had time to get the jab. But after three years? 18 months after safe vaccines become available? When we have reached herd immunity through a combination of previous infection and vaccination?

The argument has been that people should wear a mask to protect themselves and others. The same argument also applied to vaccination: get vaccinated to protect yourself and also inhibit spread of the virus to others. But whereas we have been careful to make vaccination voluntary, even though it is the best protection, we have been prepared to make mask-wearing mandatory by law even though it is the less effective of the two measures. Where is the logic in that? And where is the social justice? After all, even if the mask mandate is cancelled those who wish to do so will still be free to wear one.

There has been much less public discussion of the downside of widespread mask wearing, particularly among the young. Language development and progress in socialization have both been adversely affected by prolonged mask wearing.

The government has been very successful in frightening the community about the virus in order to keep the population compliant with safeguards and therefore safe. Mask-wearing has become the nearest thing the SAR has to an official religion. Adherents far outnumber Anglicans, Catholics and all the other established religions added together. And they are not slow to chastise those of their fellow citizens they think are insufficiently devout.

If complete cancellation of the mandate in one fell swoop is too great a step for the public to accept, then a rapid phased approach could be adopted – voluntary outdoors for one month to get people used to seeing faces again, then voluntary indoors (except public transport) in the second month, then completely voluntary everywhere.

We do not need to be scared of Covid any more, we just have to be sensible. Same for monkeypox. But we should be worried about those who have been monkeying around with our controls and messaging. We can start by taking away their bananas.