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IT WAS IN January that your correspondent was finally allowed to reveal to friends and colleagues that he was being posted from London to Hong Kong. Back then, the reaction was unvarying: “Great news, but aren’t you worried about catching this virus they have out there?”
When boarding the flight to Asia a couple of weeks ago, it was clear who was by then considered the more likely vector of covid-19. Nearly every returning Hong Konger on the plane had enveloped himself in protective gear. Disposable paper suits were gaffer-taped around ankles and wrists. Begoggled eyes peered out from behind full-face visors. When the British stewards, sometimes with their face masks dangling below their chins, tried to proffer a glass of orange juice, they were dismissed with a panicked waving of arms. Baffled Europeans, whose masks were their only nod towards protection, took surreptitious photos on their smartphones. Half the plane looked as if it were heading off on a city break; the other half, as if it were taking the last flight out of Chernobyl.
One of the many complaints about Britain’s lethargic reaction to the pandemic has been its lax policing of its borders. Even as the novel coronavirus raged in Italy, for example, and Italians were banned from travelling within their own country, Alitalia flights continued to touch down at Heathrow airport. On landing, passengers, like those on other carriers, have been free to wander straight onto Tube trains, their throats untroubled by a testing swab.
Even now, people arriving at British airports go untested. Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, says that tests at airports are unnecessary because the number of inbound travellers—around 15,000 a day—is so small. He has only half the story right. True, the World Health Organisation advises that restricting travel into countries in which the virus has already taken hold is not only ineffective, but also diverts resources and hampers much-needed imports. But it is also clear about the value of screening. Its simple advice is to “test, test, test”.
Hong Kong’s government takes no chances either way. It has banned all non-residents, including transit passengers, from entering. And when international returnees touch down at the territory’s airport, they can expect at least a ten-hour admission process. First, their temperatures are taken. Then they must fill in quarantine cards, stating any symptoms they have had and where they will be quarantining for the next two weeks. Next they must download a tracking app to their phones and have a GPS device fixed to their wrists. Finally, everyone is bused to a huge exhibition centre next to the airport, where saliva samples are taken. At that point everyone settles down for an eight-hour wait for their test results to be processed, sitting alone at a desk several metres even from the family members they flew in with—although the government has recently begun to allow those arriving late in the day to await results at a designated hotel.
Anyone who tests positive is whisked straight to hospital, regardless of symptoms. Everyone else can head home, as long as they promise to keep a safe distance from other members of their family (the government suggests eating facing a wall). Once at their apartments, they must confine themselves there for a fortnight, and can expect check-up phone calls from the Department of Health. Fines and imprisonment are promised for those who so much as step outside their front doors.
That is, at least, for those with a home. Although the rules stipulate that only Hong Kong residents are allowed to enter the territory, exemptions are made for students, domestic staff and those with recently issued work visas. (Some mainlanders will soon also be allowed in.) For those, like your correspondent, yet to find a permanent address, that probably means a two-week stint in a “quarantine hotel”.
Hong Kong’s tourism industry is on its knees. Hotel occupancy was just 29% in February, according to the Hong Kong Tourist Board, down from 91% a year earlier. So for hotels, guests in quarantine are a welcome source of revenue. Winnie Woo, the general manager of L’hotel Island South, one of those that offer an isolation package, says that she was first asked to cater for incoming Chinese business travellers by a big corporate client. She came to view it as a “social responsibility to support the community in Hong Kong”, and expanded the service. That may be so, but the business case is also clear. L’hotel Island South has reserved around 100 rooms for quarantine—a quarter of its capacity. Most are filled with returning students. But the establishment also does a roaring trade putting up scholars’ families. Some parents, it seems, are happy to cede their apartments so that their offspring can self-isolate from the comfort of home.
Anyone making use of the quarantine service is issued with a key that allows one-time entry into the room but which then deactivates. Three times a day, hot meals are left in plastic bags outside occupants’ rooms. Room service is not allowed, so this is done by one of the hotel’s three robots.
There are still some nervous Hong Kongers who would prefer that the territory close its borders entirely to potential disease-spreaders from abroad. So hotels tend not to market the quarantine service. Instead lists of places that offer self-isolation have circulated among groups on social media and by word of mouth. To reassure other guests, hotels usually designate specific floors for the quarantined. Some ensure air does not circulate from their rooms to others in the building. After staff in some establishments expressed concerns, maids are no longer asked to clean the rooms. Rather, even in some swanky places, a sackful of cleaning products is left on guests’ doormats along with step-by-step instructions on how to scrub toilets. The only outside human contact is with the member of staff who must take the temperature of the quarantined once a day.
To those in confinement, cleanliness can seem a piffling problem. For families, in particular, two weeks stuck in a cramped hotel room promises to test the patience of even the closest-knit. Even an afternoon staring down on the majestic black kites that swoop in and out of the city’s skyscrapers can eventually become mundane. But although the territory’s measures are draconian, they do seem to be working. On the day your correspondent arrived, Hong Kong reported just four new coronavirus cases. All had recently returned from abroad. On several days since, not one was recorded.■