From being separated from their friends and teachers to being stripped away of face-to-face education, the last thing our children need to face right now is being torn away from their family and sent to quarantine. Through no fault of their own, children are currently facing the daunting prospect of mandatory quarantine as a result of teachers, coaches and fellow pupils testing positive for Covid-19.
Whilst the Centre for Health Protection (“CHP”) has a crucial role to play in protecting Hong Kong’s citizens by doing all it can to keep the pandemic at bay, it cannot do so by putting the physical and mental well-being of children at risk. The government has to strike a fine balance to protect our children, and to alleviate some of the uncertainty expressed by the public especially when it comes to children’s well-being.
The news has been flooded recently with stories of children that have been sent to quarantine centres. In February, 130 students from Shau Kei Wan Government Secondary School were sent to quarantine after two students were found to be infected. Last week, an under 12 rugby team and a nursery class found themselves in the same situation. A class of students from Kellett School aged 9 and 10 were due to quarantine but after strong representations were made to CHP they were able to remain at home.
Over the last couple of days, 35 students from The Harbour School of ages 8 to 10 were due to quarantine in a government quarantine centre. Roughly 10% of the students at this school have severe special or physical needs and out of the 35 children, 3 were in this category. Having these children go into government quarantine could have a significant long term psychological impact on them and their families.
It is important for all children to be in a familiar routine and even more crucial for these children not to be removed from their familiar environments. Strong representations were again made to the CHP that the children should not go to the government quarantine centre and CHP eventually agreed that the children could quarantine in hotels instead.
Families in Hong Kong are fearful of what will happen should someone in their family tests positive, or if one of them is deemed a close contact of a positive Covid-19 patient. There is no standard guideline being adopted by CHP as of yet to deal with the situation concerning children, as it will be decided on a case-by-case basis. However, the flood of information provided on Facebook groups and the lack of transparency on policy have made people in Hong Kong more anxious. They are constantly living in fear and uncertainty, particularly when it involved children with special needs. Such stress has undoubtedly extended to the school administrators and teachers who are duty bound to protect their children.
Doctor Charles Brantley, general practitioner from Central Health Medical Practice, a medical centre in Hong Kong, said:
“At Central Health, we have seen multiple examples of how the threat of child separation can have devastating impacts on the mental health of the whole family. Many of our most resilient patients who are normally calm in a crisis or medical situation have found themselves at close to breaking point with anxiety over what will happen to their children should someone in the family tests positive. But of course the most worrying cases are in those families where a parent or child already has mental health problems.”
Doctor Melissa Ortega Giglio, a clinical psychologist, specialising in children and adolescents based at One Island South is herself quarantining in Hong Kong with her 3 children with ages ranging from 4 – 8. She says:
"Having their regular caregivers present with the children during this stressful and anxiety provoking time is critical to reduce the traumatic effects. Traumatic experiences result in increased anxiety, difficulty with sleeping and eating, changes in behaviour, emotional dysregulation, trouble separating from caregivers, and difficulty transitioning back to their routines. Keeping families together can reduce the impact of a challenging situation."
As family lawyers, we are very much concerned about the welfare of the children, and we would like clearer guidelines from the government to help those in need. The same concern is shared by Doctor Sarah Borwein, a Doctor at Central Health Medical Practice who says:
“I don’t have a clear line of vision as to what is actually happening. There are a lot of rumors floating around, and sometimes the stories I’ve been told about turn to be not as quite presented, or more complicated and the biggest issue is actually the lack of communication.”
We are glad that the government has issued a press release to address “Quarantine and isolation arrangement involving children”. This statement will certainly have alleviated some stress and anxiety amongst those families in quarantine, however, there is still room to instill more confidence and increase understanding.
From the perspective of family lawyers, the interests of the children are of utmost importance. The schools and the parents should be provided with clear guidelines prior to identification of close contacts or positive cases, including under what circumstances the children would have to be sent to a government quarantine centre, hotel quarantine or self-isolation. A case-by-case approach might be applicable to the general public, but it does not help when we are dealing with vulnerable children. These government guidelines will help to ease the stress of schools and parents and enhance the well-being of the children.
If you have any queries, please feel free to reach out to us and we will be happy to assist and advise.