Hong Kong civil servants have been warned to beware if they comment on government policies in a private capacity as their code of conduct was updated for the first time in 15 years.

Ingrid Yeung Ho Poi-yan, the civil service secretary, said on Sunday that if civil servants expressed opinions in a personal capacity, they had to make sure their views were not mistaken for official statements.

“They should be careful their comments will not lead to the misunderstanding that those opinions represent the government, their organisations or other civil servants,” Yeung said.

“If they were to be interviewed in their capacity as a public employee, I strongly encourage them to get the opinion of their department and seek permission from their organisation.”

Yeung, speaking in a television interview, said civil servants could register their dissatisfaction through existing civil service channels or through their unions.

The updated civil service code came into force on Friday, six months after the government proposed a string of changes designed to guarantee “loyalty, dedication and integrity”.

The 30-page document, last revised in 2009, also listed other core values, including “professionalism” and “political neutrality” for the 172,610-strong public service.

The Secretary for the Civil Service, Ingrid Yeung, says civil servants should be careful when commenting in public on government policy. Photo: Edmond So

Civil servants “cannot criticise” government policies or “support opposing views of any other party” in an official capacity, either in person or online, a chapter on “dedication to duty” ruled.

The code added that public sector personnel must provide reasonable support and protection necessary for work to ensure national security.

Yeung said that civil servants should be on the lookout national security risks in their work, with clauses related to the new Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

“When faced with issues that are contentious, I believe better communication and explanation between stakeholders can help minimise divisive opinions,” she added.

“Escaping from the problem is not a solution – I believe our society is rational and can come up with solutions.”

Yeung added that the policy work done by civil servants should not pose a risk to national security either.

She dismissed fears that civil service healthcare and dental benefits would mean more stress on services and lengthen queues for ordinary members of the public.

Yeung said the government had to provide similar health benefits to the private sector to maintain the attractiveness of the public service.

She added that there was a shortage of dentists in the Department of Health and that private dental clinics had been recruited to provide treatment for civil servants to reduce the burden on public healthcare.

Yeung also floated the idea of contracting out dental treatment for civil servants to cities in mainland China to cut their waiting times.

“We are studying the feasibility of using dental services in the Greater Bay Area, which is nearby,” she said.

But Yeung added there were technical difficulties with tracking health records and determining the scope of treatments that could be done outside Hong Kong.