China to enforce nationwide health code system after public complaints about travel hassles

China to enforce nationwide health code system after public complaints about travel hassles

Security guards check the health code app of people entering a business area before office hours in Beijing on July 14, 2022. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: China’s National Health Commission has announced that it will enforce mutual recognition of its health code system nationwide, as travellers continue to battle with health code apps that do not communicate well between provinces.

Provinces have been operating separate versions of the health code app since its introduction more than two years ago.

As one of the earliest contact-tracing measures introduced under China’s zero-Covid policy, the health code, known as jiankang ma, uses a traffic-light system to indicate whether an individual has been to a place known to have Covid-19 infections, and what risk they are at of being exposed. An individual’s status must be shown when travelling or entering public places.

The holder’s vaccination status, Covid-19 testing results and the number of days since their last test are registered and presented in the code.

The system has allowed authorities to effectively track and monitor people’s movements in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, but for travellers, it has also resulted in more headaches.

Travellers are required to download or switch to a different app after arriving at their destination province. But sometimes their test results, conducted in another province, do not appear in the app of the destination province. The vaccination status from a different province will not be updated in the health code unless it is manually inputted into the destination’s database.

On Friday, the commission said it was working to improve the app, which would include the mutual recognition across provinces.

“The country has achieved ‘one province, one code’ and the nationwide sharing of [the colour] of health code, facilitating the safe and orderly travel of the masses,” said Mao Qunan, the health authority’s director of planning.

“We are working with relevant departments to continuously improve the management of health codes and promote the interoperability and mutual recognition of health codes to support Covid-19 control while facilitating normal travel.”

Travel rules in mainland China have been through various updates, including the shortening of the quarantine period for overseas arrivals, from 14 days in quarantine and seven days in home isolation to seven days of central quarantine plus three days of home monitoring.

In June, in a bid to promote travel as its economy deteriorated, China removed an asterisk sign from its digital travel pass, which had indicated a person recently visited cities with a high risk of Covid-19 exposure.

The health code system has been criticised for being abused as a tool by local authorities to enforce social stability.

Also in June, victims of a financial scandal involving four rural banks in the central province of Henan found themselves unable to go outside to join planned protests in the city of Zhengzhou because their health QR codes had turned red, leading to accusations that the system had been tampered with to quell unrest.

Several officials, including a deputy party secretary of the Zhengzhou Political and Legal Affairs Committee, were punished for abusing their power by switching users’ health codes to red.