Hong Kong’s Quarantine Flip-Flop Creates Chaos for Travelers
(Bloomberg) -- Within 30 minutes of Hong Kong reversing its seven-day quarantine policy, Ovolo Hotels’ switchboard was swamped with calls. The operator of two facilities in the city’s mandatory quarantine program also got more than 850 emails, as frantic travelers sought to adjust their bookings.
Hong Kong’s about-face -- coming less than two months after it eased one of the world’s toughest Covid-19 border regimes -- is upending travel plans and causing chaos for hotels just weeks before the start of the school year and the end of the summer vacation period.
Triggered, officials say, by growing concern about the delta variant, Tuesday’s reversal saw the scrapping of a new rule that allowed vaccinated residents returning from medium-risk locations to quarantine in a hotel for just one week, half the typically required time. The day before, countries including the U.S., Spain and France were classed as high risk, requiring a longer quarantine stay of 21 days.
Some of the callers needed to extend their bookings, while others wanted to cancel their entire reservation, said Sonesh Mool, Ovolo’s operations manager. The suddenness of the shift makes the job more challenging, he said.
“It will be like playing Tetris as we’re running at 90% occupancy from August into October,” Mool said. “It’s proven very difficult to serve guests with swift and timely adjustments -- especially when hundreds of requests, emails, and calls come flooding.”
The shift is reigniting criticism of Hong Kong’s approach to reopening, which has been split between trying to restore some semblance of its global connectivity and keeping Covid cases near zero, the only way to re-open the border with mainland China. With infections limited over the past few months and the vaccination rollout progressing, this week’s changes came as a surprise and have been slammed as regressive by business groups. They also come as Singapore, Hong Kong’s regional rival, eyes plans to resume some travel links as soon as next month.
Unlike other places with a similar closed-border, zero-tolerance approach like mainland China, Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong’s government does not allocate quarantine hotel rooms to incoming travelers. Instead, it’s a free-for-all with individuals responsible for securing their own rooms and hotels free to set their own pricing. That means that sudden shifts in policy results in a scramble, with some people unable to board their flights because they can’t secure an adequate booking.
The move “creates disruptions for almost everyone returning from Europe, no matter what your category is,” said Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. The situation is “a mess” and “everyone running hotel operations in Hong Kong is freaking out right now. Everyone has to change their own arrangements.”
The average booking rate at designated quarantine hotels for September -- before the changes were announced -- is around 70%, the city’s Food and Health Bureau said Tuesday.
The impact of the tightened curbs remains to be seen, the government department said. “We will continue to closely monitor the demand for hotel rooms and consider the need for releasing some 1,500 reserve rooms in individual quarantine hotels if and where necessary,” it said.
Mathew Phan booked a flight from Hong Kong to the U.S. just four days before Monday’s shift deeming 15 countries high risk.
The financial analyst now faces three weeks locked in a hotel room when he returns from the U.S., where he’s due to attend a course in October. Phan echoed the anger of many at the unexpected changes, which lit up Facebook and other social media groups founded to negotiate the complicated quarantine system.
“Super annoying,” Phan, 40, said. “If this policy is just because they were just trying to manage a statistic that would just be stupid.”
With Hong Kong increasingly intertwined with the mainland, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been laser focused on trying to reopen the border. Chinese tourists were one of the city’s biggest sources of revenue before the pandemic, and the removal of quarantines on both sides would allow a resumption of business flows. But Beijing has given little indication of a pathway to easing border curbs, and China is in the midst of a virus resurgence, ignited by delta slipping through its own tight controls.
“I can’t see this would help,” said Danny Lau, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association. “There’s no timetable at the moment, nor a clear guideline on the conditions for border reopening.”
What’s more, the longer quarantine period will affect Hong Kong-based companies’ overseas activities, said Lau, who had scheduled a client meeting in the U.S. around the end of September, but is now thinking of shelving it due to the quarantine reversal.
More contagious than the original strain, delta has spread rapidly throughout the world, infiltrating even the most stringent border curbs in so-called Covid Zero countries, which are targeting elimination of the virus. New Zealand -- which has a similar hotel quarantine system to Hong Kong, though only mandates 14-day stays -- locked down the entire country Tuesday after finding one delta case in the community.
Hong Kong has only seen one locally-transmitted delta case in over two months, but the city’s mix of vaccines also means it needs to be cautious, said Ivan Hung, a University of Hong Kong professor who sits on a committee advising the government on vaccinations. Hong Kong has been administering both the messenger RNA shot made by Germany’s BioNTech SE and a more traditional vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Sinovac’s shot has proven less effective than the mRNA inoculations in clinical trials.
Fully vaccinated people can also still spread the virus to others, said David Hui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Hui also sits on an advisory panel that recommended the government increase the quarantine period back to 14 days.
Hui pointed to the government’s internal data that shows only 88.5% of cases in fully vaccinated travelers were picked up in the first seven days after arrival. Hong Kong will increase the frequency of testing during hotel quarantine and review the data in due course to refine the isolation periods, he said.
But a longer quarantine hotel stay in itself could be an infection risk given the lack of ventilation and tightly-packed nature of Hong Kong facilites. The new rules were introduced after a vaccinated 38-year-old resident tested positive following a seven-day quarantine. This week, a medical expert said that the person actually caught the virus from two individuals who tested positive during their stay at the quarantine hotel when their door was opened.
Concern there could be further shifts or about-turns is rising given the government’s track record. It’s been criticized in the past for shifting back and forth on school closures, and its seemingly random application of some social-distancing curbs. Gatherings in public of more than four people are still banned, though thousands have been attending packed indoor events like art and book fairs.
Rules requiring anyone exposed to an outbreak within Hong Kong to quarantine at spartan isolation facilities has raised the ire of the city’s still significant expat community.
Phan, the financial analyst is now looking to overhaul his plans. He’s thinking of rerouting his flight back from the U.S. through Singapore, which falls in the medium-risk category, to avoid a three-week quarantine stint.
“Working from home has been depressing enough,” he said. “If I’m working by myself in a hotel room, that’s going to be really awful for me -- I really want to avoid that at all costs.”
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