As Hong Kong scrapped its Covid curbs, I boarded the bus to lock-up

I was bullish on Hong Kong reopening. Scrapping Covid-19 travel restrictions seemed like an easy win for a territory on a three-year losing streak. But just as the city’s leader John Lee announced the end of hotel quarantine at the end of last month, I was the only passenger on a fire department bus headed for seven more days of isolation.

In one of my all-time worst bets, I had booked a trip outside Hong Kong at a time when travellers were still required to spend three days confined to a hotel on arrival. I reckoned that a few days in a smart hotel was much better than the two-week lock-ups I’d completed in the past, or the 21-day isolation stints required at various points over the past three years.

But on the final day of what turned out to be one of the city’s last ever hotel quarantines for inbound travellers, there was an ominous phone call. “Mr Langley has tested positive for Covid-19,” a health department official told my bemused partner, sending me headlong back into 2020.

Returning to Hong Kong from overseas during the pandemic was always a surreal experience. PPE-clad workers at the airport would funnel passengers between testing stations and vaccination record checks, before sending them on to hotel confinement. This obstacle course, completed with dossiers of documents in tow, was a reminder of how the virus continued to dominate life in the city.

But this time around, my three nights of hotel quarantine were followed by seven extra days in a community isolation facility operated by Hong Kong’s security bureau. The arrival of meals was announced via phone calls from hotel staff, as if even knocking on my highly sterilised door might unleash a fresh wave of the virus.

Colleagues, meanwhile, were toasting the end of quarantine with champagne in the office. Friends celebrated “Hong Kong’s return” by booking their first overseas flights in nearly three years.

At some point during my isolation I calculated that I had completed a total of 46 full days in hotel quarantine. At 26-and-a-half years old, that equals a not-statistically insignificant 0.475 per cent of my life.

I got off lightly though. I have never had to complete one of the dreaded 21-day runs required for large parts of the pandemic. Only once did I have to “wash out” in a third country when direct arrivals from the UK were outright banned. And I never experienced the desperation of parents separated from their children by quarantine orders. Nor was I ever sent to a struggling hospital as the city battled its devastating Omicron wave this year.

City officials are hoping that the eased restrictions — which come just in time for the long-delayed rugby sevens tournament and a landmark banking conference — will remind the world that it is an international finance centre and premier tourist destination.

But those who do return to the city after its Covid hiatus will find a surreal place. Arrivals who test positive may still be issued with isolation orders of seven days or more. Spectators at the rugby sevens will still have to wear masks. They will be allowed to drink alcohol, but banned from consuming food — an interesting crowd management technique for the notoriously raucous event.

They may also encounter new political realities. The city’s police filmed crowds at Hong Kong’s men’s football fixture against Myanmar last month — one of the first international sporting events since the pandemic began. The contentious national anthem ordinance, passed two years ago after years of debate and the 2019 citywide protests, criminalised “insults” to the Chinese national anthem, including failing to “stand solemnly” as it is played.

The city’s tourism board has just released a series of promotional videos featuring the Australian former rugby player Nick Cummins. These followed Cummins as he strolled maskless around Hong Kong’s streets, dined in a now-closed restaurant and visited the city’s famous sites without once scanning a QR code on his contact-tracing app or displaying a negative Covid test.

The videos, which were likely filmed pre-pandemic, were a vision of a city that once was. The tourism board may dream, but it looks unlikely to return.



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