Nearly 120 children and teens are currently confined in Hong Kong’s Covid-19 quarantine camps as upset parents question the adequacy of the facilities for young people after a number of them were classified as close contacts of confirmed cases.
While the Department of Health has long allowed parents or caretakers to isolate with children under the age of 16, officials are now being urged to permit underage close contacts to quarantine at home or hotels instead. As of Monday, 118 people under the age of 18 are currently in quarantine facilities, which housed 1,378 people as of Sunday, for a rate of 8.5 per cent.
Some expatriate parents have renewed scrutiny of the policy after their children were deemed close contacts of a confirmed case and ordered into quarantine. Some of the isolation orders were related to a growing cluster at Ursus Fitness gym in Sai Ying Pun popular with expatriates, which has grown to 122 cases, while others were tied to a baby playgroup session held by the Baumhaus institution in Wan Chai last Tuesday. At least one parent was involved in both.
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For parents Nick and Kylie Worley, what seemed like an innocuous 45-minute session for their 15-month-old son has unexpectedly turned into a “brutal” quarantine nightmare.
Mrs Worley and her son were among the eight babies and their parents sent into quarantine for two weeks after one of the mothers who visited Ursus Fitness tested positive for the virus. While all the adults wore masks, some babies did not.
Mr Worley received permission to isolate with his wife and son at Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre, where they arrived on Sunday. But they said the room was unsafe for the child, noting he could bang his head against the sharp edges of the furniture or low tables.
The facility had also run out of cots to sleep on and the lack of a fridge made keeping fresh food difficult. This had caused stress for their son who was not eating or sleeping well, they said.
“He had a meltdown for 2½ hours last night. It’s just not him as a baby, it’s heartbreaking,” Mrs Worley said. “We’re not against quarantine. It’s just, doing this to a baby … It’s quite cruel to them.”
Another parent from the same playgroup, who did not want to be named, questioned the official mask policy for babies, saying government guidelines stated that the face coverings were not recommended for children under the age of two years without supervision.
“Had we been told that the babies must wear masks … we would have respected the policy and put masks on the babies,” the parent said. “If they refused to keep them on, we would not have brought them to class.”
Carsten Rakutt, managing director of Baumhaus, said the school was sending care packages to the affected parents, including corner guards for childproofing furniture.
The school also had prolonged discussions with the authorities on alternatives to isolation, but they ultimately ruled the families would have to be quarantined.
More than 4,800 people have signed a petition launched a day ago calling on the government to allow home quarantine for younger people.
“We strongly protest against sending kids to government quarantine centres,” the petition read. “Young kids are simply that, young kids. They are not mature enough to handle the stress of being snatched away from their homes and thrown into a foreign place.”
But Leung Chi-chiu, a respiratory expert, thinks home confinement could be problematic due to overcrowded living conditions.
“When you put [children] at home, if their carers get infected or become asymptomatic, they could bring the infection into the community,” he said.
But Leung agreed the government could examine the facilities housing the children.
Separately, both the United States, Swiss and British consulates expressed concerns about the possible separation of children from their parents during quarantine.
“I know many parents in our community … have struggled with the implications of them or their children testing positive and the family being separated through hospitalisation or quarantine,” said Sarah Robinson, an economics and trade consul from the British consulate, in a Facebook video last Thursday.
Wong Kam-leung, chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, believes that granting exemptions based on nationality would undermine pandemic-control measures.
“No matter if you are a foreign or local parent, there shouldn’t be [government] exemptions based on particular identities that get in the way of fighting the pandemic,” he said.
The Post has reached out to the Centre for Health Protection for comment. It has previously said children under 16 should have a parent with them at the quarantine centre, but if neither parent was available, a designated guardian or carer could go along.
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