Hong Kong: To quarantine or not to quarantine? That is the question!

Article 04 May 2021 Experience: Divorce and family lawyers

There has been much discussion regarding the Centre for Health Protection’s (CHP) apparent change of the definition of a ‘close contact’, and the effect this has on the requirement to go into government quarantine.

Over the last 2 weeks, we learnt that patients and staff from Optimal Family Health, a family medical practice, had to go into quarantine for 21 days although some of the patients had no contact with the nurse from that practice that contracted Covid-19. It is understood that some patients were in the surgery up to 2 days before the nurse could even have had contracted Covid-19. Then, all the residents from a residential building located at 8 Kennedy Road, with no notice or Quarantine Orders, were whisked away to quarantine for 21 days as a domestic helper in the building tested positive for Covid-19. Last week, residents from 416 apartments at Tower 11, Carmel Cove, Caribbean Coast in Tung Chung were sent to Penny’s Bay to quarantine for 21 days.

While the CHP plays a critical role in containing Covid-19 in Hong Kong and has done so admirably in keeping the city’s residents safe, it is doing so to the detriment of the mental well-being of those that are being sent into quarantine and the families that they are being separated from. People are no longer fearful of contracting Covid-19, they are fearful of the repercussions should they be removed from their homes and be sent to quarantine. They can no longer take precautions to ensure they will not be deemed a “close contact” of a Covid-19 patient. There is no recognition of measures being taken or compliance with CHP guidelines and no definition of what a “close contact” is. In the Optional Family Health case, some of the patients were in the surgery for no longer than 5 to 10 minutes. Previously, the known definition of a “close contact” was coming into contact with an infected individual and not wearing a mask for over 15 minutes. Due to the new mutant strains, the CHP will no longer “just” lockdown a residential building and order mandatory testing for everyone should there be a positive case in the building. It will now send residents of the whole building to quarantine. Whilst it is understandable that a cautious approach is being taken with a new variant, there are concerns as to whether this is necessary and proportionate.

21 days in quarantine without being able to leave a room, have fresh air or exercise is harmful to the mental well-being of children and adults alike. How are the elderly and infirm and their care-givers who will most likely have to go into quarantine with them able to cope? The importance of protecting the physical health of the most vulnerable is understandable but we must ensure we protect those that are being sent into quarantine as well.

This is now exam season for children. The IB exams started on Thursday 29 April, with Hong Kong being one of the few countries left in the world that is still taking exams. A large number of students tried to petition to have the exams cancelled, but to no avail. One of the reasons that was stressed was students’ studies have been affected by the pandemic especially after the new variant has been found in Hong Kong but this argument was rejected. Hearing that residents in another building have been sent to mandatory quarantine is an added stress to those students. It can literally happen to any one of them, and parents and teachers are unable to assure them otherwise.

It was announced on 23 April that the CHP will consider reducing the quarantine period from 14 days to 7 for those close contacts who have received their second dose of the vaccine for at least two weeks and have tested negative. Examination of new medical evidence was mentioned. This cannot come fast enough for those that are already in quarantine for 21 days or for those that are living in fear of being quarantined. But what about the alternatives such as medical surveillance at home? Is there really a need to quarantine at one of the quarantine centres?

For family lawyers, the interests of children remains of upmost importance. There have been many press reports concerning young children and whether they contribute to the spread of Covid-19. But, is there a need to quarantine young children?

Professor Benjamin Cowling, Division Head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong said:

“We have learnt in the last year that young children are less susceptible to COVID-19, and less contagious if they are infected. Contact tracing and quarantine of close contacts has been an important measure in keeping COVID-19 transmission under control in Hong Kong. However, given the lower risk of infection and transmission particularly in younger children (say those under 11 years of age), I think there is a strong argument that home quarantine with regular testing would be more appropriate for this group.”

The government has to strike a fine balance to protect our children, whilst alleviating the uncertainty expressed by the public. The government’s press release in March to address “Quarantine and isolation arrangements involving children” alleviated some of the stress and anxiety amongst families but after the quarantine issues which have arisen over the last 2 weeks, much more needs to be done to install confidence and increase understanding. The government press release sent on behalf of the CHP in the evening on 2 May seeks to do this but there is still a need for clearer guidelines and consideration of methods other than periods of up to 21 days in a quarantine centre and this should be done urgently.