Katrina* was a few days into quarantine in a hotel room in Hong Kong when she received a phone call saying her infant child had tested positive for coronavirus at the airport.
The pair were plunged into the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the territory’s “zero-Covid” policy, which bounced them from hospital to hotel to government facility. They were told they would not be released from isolation until late December, more than seven weeks after returning to Hong Kong.
“It is hard, especially with a young kid. You feel like a prisoner,” she said, speaking by phone from quarantine.
Sofia* and her five-year-old daughter will have spent 44 days in quarantine by the time they are let out. Complicated discharge criteria meant they were detained in hospital for more than a month after the child tested positive, then sent to a hotel to spend two more weeks in quarantine.
“We were going crazy,” she said, also speaking from quarantine. “I had no idea how long I would be there.”
Hundreds of adults and children have been caught up in extreme pandemic control measures introduced in recent months that extended the time people who test positive for the virus — or those close to them — must spend in isolation in hospital or quarantine.
In August, Hong Kong toughened criteria for discharging Covid patients from isolation. Anyone who tests positive must spend at least 10 days in hospital, display almost no symptoms and pass two PCR tests to be released.
Then, in October, the city imposed an additional two-week quarantine for recovered Covid patients. The move was branded unethical and unnecessary by some health experts.
Those who have been near a person with the virus, so-called “close contacts”, face quarantine in a government facility for up to 21 days.
It has compounded travel restrictions, which require a 14 or 21-day hotel quarantine for anyone entering the territory, depending on their point of origin. The outcome of these measures has created one of the strictest and longest quarantine regimes in the world.
This month, 54 people in a quarantine hotel had 14 days added to their stay — resulting in 35 days of isolation for some — after one guest was found to be carrying the Delta variant.
“I felt angry and extremely sad. I was like, no, I can’t do this again,” said one of the people affected, who did not want to be named.
In another case, 120 kindergarten and primary pupils from a school in Discovery Bay were taken to a government facility for three days after one child’s father — a pilot — contracted coronavirus abroad.
Like China, Hong Kong’s aim since the start of the pandemic has been to eliminate the virus from within its borders. It has maintained this strategy even as other parts of Asia, including rival business hubs such as Singapore and Tokyo, open up.
The policy has meant Hong Kong has avoided a nationwide lockdown and recorded just 213 deaths in a population of 7.5m. But it is now trapped between risking its status as a centre for global business that relies on free travel, or relaxing measures and risking an outbreak, which could be disastrous due to low vaccine rates among the elderly.
Residents and healthcare experts are divided over whether the measures should be relaxed.
Business groups have increased lobbying efforts, claiming workers are leaving the territory owing to the restrictions. Several senior executives told the Financial Times that their families had not returned to the city after going abroad this summer because they feared being trapped in long quarantines.
“What most worries me is that we are really distancing ourselves from the rest of the world,” said Arisina Ma, former president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association. “Hong Kong is supposed to be an international place.”
Yet others insist the policies are justified because they have prevented the large numbers of deaths suffered in other countries and allowed daily life to continue mostly as normal.
Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, said she “won’t sacrifice the safety of the people just to rush reopening borders”.
Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, chair of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, told the FT that the long quarantines were “prudent”.
Hong Kong has not had a significant outbreak since March, meaning most people caught up in the tightened controls have travelled into the city from abroad.
“I’ve lived here for 15 years, but I can’t live in a country which can take away children’s freedom at the drop of a hat,” said Kate*, who was ordered into a three-day quarantine at a government facility called Penny’s Bay with her young son during the Discovery Bay school incident.
“It has been a completely inhumane experience and not one I want to put my children through ever again.”
Hong Kong’s policies are underpinned by China’s own uncompromising measures, and its efforts to open a travel “bubble” with the mainland.
A doctor who worked on a Covid isolation ward in Hong Kong, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being penalised, said: “Hong Kong opted to follow the Chinese government while ignoring the world’s trend, which sounds strange for a city self-branded as Asia’s world city.” He added: “It is the individuals who have to bear the unreasonable length of stay.”
For some of those individuals, the measures are prompting them to reconsider staying in Hong Kong.
“I don’t know where or when [we will go], but as soon as I’m out, I’ll start selling my furniture,” said one of the people in quarantine. “I don’t want to live in their ‘bubble’ but with the everyday fear of being called again to go to Penny’s Bay. 100 per cent, we’re out of here,” the person said.
*Names have been changed