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Inside the world's longest quarantine

Hong Kong's ultra-strict border restrictions are enough to put even the hardiest lockdown survivor to the test, discovers Carolynne Dear.

Another day in paradise - Hong Kong has the longest quarantine in the world at three weeks.

Our vehicle pulled up outside Hong Kong’s swanky five-star Sheraton hotel. But not at the main lobby, instead we had been driven to a back entrance on Middle Road. Pedestrians ambling along the pavement were quickly directed out of the way by hotel staff as we waited to be ushered inside.

You would be forgiven for assuming we were visiting celebrities, or royalty, or maybe politicians, eager to escape awaiting paparazzi.

In fact, quite the opposite was true; we were fresh off the plane from the United Kingdom and were arriving at the plush property not by limousine, or even in one of Hong Kong's iconic red and white 'urban' taxis, but instead by lumbering quarantine bus. Ahead of us loomed the longest government designated isolation in the world, 21 days incarcerated in a hotel room, six Covid-19 tests and a follow-up seven days of 'self monitoring' at home, with a final test on day 19.

Admittedly as a fully inoculated resident, I could have applied for a reduced, 14 day quarantine, but Hong Kong makes no exemption for unvaccinated children. If my daughter was down for the three week long-haul, so was I.

Once the path had been cleared, we were quickly escorted off the bus and into the hotel. Reception staff in head-to-toe personal protection equipment that would put a fully kitted out ICU nurse to shame, lead us into a small reception area and we were urged not to touch anything. There was no welcome drink waiting for us. In fact, we couldn’t even take a seat because every single item of furniture was tightly wrapped in plastic. Anything we came into contact with was quickly sprayed with disinfectant. Our suitcases on the pavement outside seemed to be undergoing some sort of fogging process.

Almost blind with exhaustion by this stage, we signed the rather forbidding 'HKSAR Department of Health Compulsory Quarantine Order', agreeing to confine ourselves at The Sheraton for the designated period of time or face a HK$25,000 fine and imprisonment for six months. Even by bureaucracy-loving Hong Kong standards, the amount of paperwork involved with returning to the city was extensive. By this stage, we just wanted to get to our room and pass out.

I was finally returning to Hong Kong after more than nine months in my birth country. I flew to London last October because I have a daughter in boarding school in Britain and had to travel back to take care of her over the two week half term autumn break. Normally this is a fun, pop-in/pop-out kind of break. But due to the onerous travel restrictions - at that stage Hong Kong returnees were required to isolate at home for two weeks - I was planning on staying until the Christmas holiday before returning.

Unfortunately, the pandemic had other ideas and as Covid-19 took an even deadlier turn, unleashing the Alpha variant on Europe just days before Christmas, I took the decision to remain in the UK. It seemed the most responsible thing to do under the circumstances. Travel to Hong Kong had also become tougher still, with the introduction of a two week hotel quarantine. Naively, I hoped to ride out the winter holidays with extended family, drop my daughter back to school in the first week of January and jump on a flight back to Chek Lap Kok soon after. The best laid plans of mice and men...

Nine months and a five month flight ban later, here I finally was.

Fortunately I’d opted to pull my daughter out of school two weeks before the end of the summer term to ensure she had a decent holiday with her Hong Kong-based father and siblings before having to return to Britain and school in September. Because about a week after our arrival, Hong Kong introduced a second London flight ban, plunging thousands of Hong Kong families’ summer plans into chaos.

The 12-hour flight between London and Hong Kong in normal times is a breeze. You pull into Heathrow’s Terminal 3 drop-off zone, lob a couple of cases out of the cab, check-in, take-off and enjoy a well-deserved gin and tonic before landing in Asia the following morning reasonably well-rested.

But the reality of Hong Kong’s pandemic border restrictions makes it much more of an ordeal (more details here). At the time we travelled in late June, we had to undergo a LAMP test (this has now been upgraded to a full PCR test) with a laboratory that holds ISO15189 accreditation. This is important as the printed test result - which must show all names (first, middle and last), time of test and passport or Hong Kong Identity Card number - must also be presented to the airline with a separate print-out detailing the accreditation details. The passenger before us at check-in was unfortunately prevented from boarding the flight for not having this vital document. Another was refused for having taken the test just 15 minutes outside of the 72 hour time limit.

Waiting for Covid-19 test results at Hong Kong International Airport.

Finding a lab with ISO15189 accreditation used to be a bit of a job, but thankfully Collinson stepped into the breach last December by opening a testing centre at Terminal 2 with everything departing Hong Kongers required. Or at least it did until the testing requirements changed at the end of June - now travellers are back to scouring the country for ISO15189 accredited labs, this time with full PCR testing. The Collinson contract at Heathrow also expires at the end of July.

Despite living within three hours of Heathrow, we checked into the airport’s Hilton Garden Inn hotel at Terminal 2 the night before so we could get the testing out of the way.

The check-in desks opened at 6.30 the following morning for our lunchtime flight and we had been advised to arrive early as the paperwork checks were slowing the process to a snail’s pace.

Fortunately we sailed through and spent the next four hours in the Plaza Premium lounge relaxing before our flight. So far so good.

Our Cathay flight took-off on time and was uneventful. We landed at an efficiently locked down Chek Lap Kok airport and were ‘processed’ (including a second Covid swab test) and on our hotel bus ‘just’ five hours after landing (we counted our blessings - a friend had endured a 19 hour wait last year having landed in a typhoon which had closed Hong Kong laboratories).

And so we arrived in our quarantine room on a steamy Tuesday afternoon so exhausted it took until Friday to fully recover. Hong Kong quarantine hotels with interconnecting rooms are like gold dust, so we’d done well to secure a suite. We have a king size bed which we are sharing (ordering two duvets makes it feel more like separate beds) and a separate lounge room which has made all the difference. It’s not the cheapest booking on the block, but having one room to sleep in and a different area to pass the day in is life-changing. It also means we can split up if we need our own space.

A food delivery to the door is about as exciting as quarantine gets.

My first tip would be to embrace jet-lag. A friend had already advised us to ‘let the morning go’. Wake-up late, mess around on social media, answer emails, take a long shower, order in a coffee and suddenly it’s lunchtime. It’s the afternoon, we were sagely informed, that can be the problem.

However, having gone through the winter lockdown in the UK, we were well prepared mentally for filling long, uneventful days. Locked away in the family cottage in rural Somerset, we had spent much of January and February quietly completing jigsaw puzzles and watching endless reruns of Midsomer Murders and Death in Paradise (me) and Grey’s Anatomy and Tik Tok videos (my daughter).

My one solace had been getting outside into the beautiful countryside every day for at least an hour and either walking, running or holding a DIY HIIT session on the lawn. Exercise, I discovered, is a total mood booster and it lifted my spirits all the way through that never-ending winter. Our hotel didn’t offer any exercise equipment, so I hired a treadmill online which was ready and waiting in our room. I’ve been trying to complete an hour of exercise a day - a running machine in a sealed room is not quite the same as getting out into the fresh air and rolling hills of England’s verdant west country, but it does the job and I’m tired enough to fall asleep every night.

I also downloaded some yoga and stretching classes. A mat and some bands is a useful addition to your packing.

Scarlet undergoes day 12 Covid-19 testing by Department of Health officials.

I filled two cases for the trip - one with regular items such as clothing, shoes and toiletries, and another crammed with time-filling activities. I included colouring and puzzle books, a pencil case with pens, pencils and coloured texters, magazines, books, packs of cards, a Yahtzee set, a paint-by-numbers canvas and some knitting projects (I have a couple of nieces due this year and am trying my hand at a baby jacket or two; my daughter has a crochet-based Duke of Edinburgh challenge to complete).

I asked the family to deliver a table top Mahjong board (around HK$170 from neighbourhood hardware stores) which is handy for jigsaws and painting projects in a confined space - it can be slid under the bed when not in use which means you can use the table for other activities, such as working or eating.

There is no laundry service available; dirty hotel bed linen and towels have to be stashed in the plastic bags provided and left in the corridor and there is a QR code for ordering fresh items. This can be done at any time but obviously you must make up your bed yourself. Hotel staff are prohibited from entering quarantine rooms.

I brought enough underwear to ensure I didn’t have to hand wash clothing. I insist we get showered and dressed each day, but we do tend to wear the same clothes. Bear in mind that although Hong Kong is sweltering at this time of year, Hong Kong hotels are well air conditioned and we’ve needed clothing similar to a UK summer. Light hoodies and shorts or track pants rule the day. Our hotel provided laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, dusters and washing up cloths and I asked family members to drop off tea-towels. I also brought some brightly coloured plastic picnic plates and proper cutlery with me - the hotel food is good quality but it’s delivered in depressing plastic pots with plastic knives and forks. For a seven day quarantine you could probably get along with this, but for three weeks it feels like you’re eating endless ‘plane meals. Serving food on attractive tableware and laying out our little coffee table with cutlery does make a difference.

Not your usual hotel welcome - stepping outside your room will earn you a six month prison sentence.

Our package includes three a la carte hotel meals a day which are tasty and wide-ranging and I have also ordered items from M&S (next-day delivery) including cordial, tea bags, milk, sliced bread, butter, cheese, ham, salad, cereal and snack items for times when we want something simpler than room service. Because we are centrally located in Tsim Sha Tsui, there are myriad Deliveroo options and we have been treating ourselves to a take-out on Friday and Saturday evenings. The local Le Pain Quotidien delivers great lattes, but I did also pack a plastic cafetiere and ground coffee, as well as our own mugs.

Our hotel is efficient at dropping deliveries to our door, usually within minutes. However, inevitably many meals and drinks are cool when they arrive; a microwave would be a godsend but we were warned that outside appliances could trip the electricity in our room.

We also have a small bar fridge which is large enough to hold a wine bottle upright (it’s the small ‘wins’ that count) as well as up to four two-pint cartons of milk.

In terms of filling our days, I have work to get on with which takes up the majority of my time. Teenagers seem to be incredibly well-suited to quarantine and lying around in a king size bed with a mobile phone and room service doesn’t seem to have been a problem for my daughter so far. I encourage her to take a walk on the treadmill each day and we eat our meals together. In fact I’d go so far as to say a teenager is a packing essential - they keep themselves to themselves for much of the time, they’re extremely handy for connecting up the TV and laptop with HDMI cables and they’re always on-hand for the odd game of cards.

Another handy addition to quarantine has been Wimbledon. We can access Centre Court matches via Fox Sports and I am regularly up until the early hours watching play. This has the added benefit of ensuring I wake late the following morning - it’s one of the happiest feelings to open your eyes and realise that half the day has gone before you’ve even got out of bed.

Don't forget to order your quarantine survival mug from The Lion Rock Press.

My biggest challenge has been getting to grips with the sealed environment. In the UK, we were constantly bombarded with reminders to meet friends outdoors, to open windows, to socialise in the park, accompanied by the much-repeated 'Hands, face, space, fresh air' government slogan. This is why it has taken so long for indoor hospitality and entertainment to return in Britain. So to be trapped in a room with locked windows seems non-sensical and I am starting to experience minor panic attacks in the night. I'm hoping I can reach day 21 without a full breakdown. For me, the lack of fresh air has been the cruellest and most ill-thought through quarantine restriction.

And so we have slowly reached the halfway point. It’s been an experience and not something I would necessarily repeat. It has been better than expected, but 21 days is still an awfully long period of time. On the plus side, we’ll exit quarantine well-rested and ready to take on a Hong Kong summer. And hopefully via the main lobby.

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