A traveller’s cautionary tale

September 28, 2021 09:13
Photo: RTHK

I am writing this with really cold fingers as I sit in Hong Kong International airport’s ‘Holding Area’ for arrivals awaiting the result of their Covid-19 PCR test.

Many of those waiting are wrapped in blankets against the now freezing cold.

International travel had long lost its lustre before the exigencies of Covid-19 provided an excuse for governments around the world to impose severe restrictions on the personal liberties of their citizens, indeed to punish when no crime has been committed.

First they could not make up their minds whether to allow the virus to spread and kill off everyone susceptible to it so that their populations acquired herd immunity or try to kill off the virus rather than the people.

This was understandable before the advent of vaccines against the virus.

Then there were the test-and-lose-trace phases which lacked a sufficient degree of efficacy.

Both the UK and Hong Kong also tried out locking down either specific towns, regions, streets or buildings in which a Covid-19 contractee had been located.

Various countries and states closed their borders totally in the curiously uninformed belief that they could isolate themselves against its reach.

Once effective vaccines had been introduced and administered widely, these boy scout measures were no longer justifiable.

Currently the Hong Kong fashion is for limited access to be granted to those who have tested negative for a PCR examination subject to further testing on arrival followed by quarantine in a government approved hotel. The quarantine period varies from 7 to 21 days, depending on where the traveller has stayed and the person’s vaccination status.

For one short but glorious period, those doubly vaccinated and with negative PCR tests but positive antibody tests were only required to spend one week in quarantine.

That didn’t last, presumably because the hoteliers ganged up on the Chief Executive, complaining of their lost revenues.

Where one has to be scrupulously wary is on seeking to enter Hong Kong from a category A jurisdiction. The regulations demand that the traveller has a negative PCR test carried out within 48 hours of arrival in Hong Kong.

This is where the small print is liable to catch out the unwary traveller.

As I was to discover, to my intense annoyance, no small expense and frustration, the test certificate has to have been issued by a laboratory that has been accredited according to ISO 15189. Even if the certificate asserts that the laboratory has carried out the test to that standard, this will not suffice.

In addition, the traveller must produce a copy of a separate certificate certifying that the laboratory is ISO 15189 validated by the appropriate government health authority in the country in which the PCR test certificate is issued.

If the airline on which you are booked to travel does not give you this information, on arrival at the airport to check in, your certificate will be rejected as invalid.

Endeavours to draw to the attention of the airline staff that the wording of the regulation specifies either an ISO validated certificate or one issued by the appropriate government health authority were in vain. “It’s almost impossible to satisfy the Hong Kong Health Department” they commented.

A telephone call to Hong Kong Immigration hotline yielded an extremely helpful officer who suggested various methods of satisfying the airline, but without success.

A call to what the Health Department laughingly calls its hotline was answered from so deep in the polar regions that the bored officer could barely muster the energy to respond at all. It was an exercise in utter futility.

The whole process had to start all over again.

As you have to book your quarantine hotel in advance, that will mean a fresh PCR test, ISO validation certificate, a new airline reservation and a fresh hotel booking.

Then, when eventually armed with all this paperwork you arrive in Hong Kong you are processed like so many sausages through lines of Health Department officials who check all your documentation no less than three times.

Then there is the several hours freezing wait for the test result in the airport “Holding Pen”. If Covid-19 doesn’t get you, the Health Department seems intent on exposing you to the risk of common or garden ‘flu.

This bureaucratic fixation with superfluous activity is particularly unwelcome as the preface to 21 days incarceration in a hermetically sealed room that deprives you of fresh air and condemns you to live in a confined space which is not cleaned for the entire duration.

Considered objectively, this is a disgusting way to treat human beings who have been diagnosed as free of the virus, even more so for those doubly vaccinated against it and having had a positive anti-body test.

I shall not embark on the risks to mental health.

When virtually the same level of protection for the community can be achieved by permitting vaccinated travellers fitted with an electronic tagging device to be quarantined in their own homes, the rationale for the current system is no longer scientifically justified.

Now imagine, if you will, trying to work in such conditions: the build-up of files in an already severely limited space, the fact that papers can be delivered to the quarantinee but completed documentation cannot be sent out from the hotel room.

Given that Hong Kong has been free of local infections for over a month, the present quarantine regime is simply absurd and raises serious questions as to the mental faculties of those responsible for imposing it.

Hong Kong’s population is highly educated and entitled to be fully and properly informed of the scientific basis to justify these restrictions. That the Secretary for Health has not done so argues, forcibly, that she cannot.

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King's Counsel