Police tape on playparks and restaurant tables for two: Scots in Hong Kong describe the city’s first full Covid lockdown
"We went to a big rugby dinner and we’d just arrived from Hong Kong and everyone was looking a bit askance at us - then it turned out for the first year that we weren’t the risk at all, it was the other way around. We were prepared, we had masks and hand sanitiser and everything, but they were uncomfortable.”
Yet for the following 18 months, while Scotland moved in and out of strict lockdowns, Hong Kong remained almost Covid-free.
Now, the pandemic has finally hit. It was estimated this week that half of Hong Kong has had Covid in the past few weeks, with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly among citizens, many of whom are not vaccinated. The sudden rise in cases has resulted in huge numbers of hospitalisations and deaths. The authorities have reported that they are running out of coffins, while morgues are overwhelmed.
Bars have been entirely closed in the city, while restaurants must shut at 6pm, with a maximum of two people per table allowed. Residents say police tape has closed off playparks, while sports facilities have been shuttered and swimming pools drained.
Mr Bruce, director of a consultancy company and chair of the Scottish business group of the British Chambers of Commerce in Hong Kong, has not been able to return home to Scotland to visit his sister in Dumfries since the pandemic began, due to stringent isolation rules when he returns. While Hong Kongers are allowed out of the country, they have to quarantine for weeks on their return in pricey quarantine hotels.
Mr Bruce, originally from the Isle of Arran, said frustration is growing over the region’s preparation for the wave.
"There was concern that at one point everyone who tested positive would have to stay in medical facilities, but the mathematics soon played out,” he says.
In the earlier part of the pandemic, anyone who tested positive for Covid – as well as their close contacts, whether they tested positive or not – were held in state quarantine facilities.
"It’s frustrating, because we bought ourselves so much time for the first 18 months, but then we didn’t vaccinate. I know people over 80 where their doctor told them not to bother getting vaccinated because there is no Covid in Hong Kong. As a result, the vaccination rates in over 80s was very low, though it has increased a lot in recent weeks.”
He adds: “I can’t really complain too much, because it was absolutely fine here for 15 months when it was hell in Britain.”
Andrew McLean* left Scotland after an extended Christmas break almost a month ago, but has still not arrived at his home in Hong Kong due to the stringent Covid rules. Hong Kong has banned flights directly from the UK, meaning that Mr McLean – who is only allowed back in the country at all because he has a residency permit – had to stop in Singapore for two weeks on his way, or would not have been allowed to enter Hong Kong. Even after his time in Singapore, he has had to stay in a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong for two weeks, before finally being allowed to leave on Sunday – after a total of nine PCR tests.
"The rules don’t seem to have any real logic or science behind them,” he says. “They call this the fifth wave, but it’s really the first wave here and they have been overwhelmed. Previously, you would have been sent to an isolation centre if you tested positive, but now because they haven’t got capacity, someone in Hong Kong who has Covid can isolate at home and if they test negative after about a week, they can go about their business. But somebody like me, who comes in, who is fully vaccinated and has had Covid, has got to sit in a hotel for two weeks, it makes no sense.”
The Hong Kong authorities are due to issue an update next week on the long-term strategy for dealing with Covid, but Mr McLean is not hopeful that there will be any major changes.
"They're apparently going to release some kind of end game plan and paint a picture of what's going to happen over the next six to 12 months,” he says.
"That said, China still has a say and China is still going for zero Covid as the vaccines that they've got in China are useless, so they know that Covid really gets in there, it could do a lot of damage – and the big thing in Hong Kong is they want to re-open the border with China.
"So, that's a concern for them and they obviously have influence over what Hong Kong does. We'll find out on Monday what the view is, but I'm not expecting anything major.”
Many Scots have made their way home for an extended break as schools in Hong Kong closed four months early for the summer holiday and staff were given a work from home order from the Hong Kong authorities. School campuses are expected to be used as Covid testing and vaccination centres amid the outbreak.
Moira and Douglas Johnson*, who have worked in finance and law in Hong Kong for more than ten years, made a last minute decision to return to Scotland earlier this month.
"They announced the schools were going to close on the Wednesday and on Thursday we booked flights and were back at my mum’s in Dumfries and Galloway by the following Monday,” says Mr Johnson.
The family, along with their two children, aged 8 and 7, are now to spend some time visiting family in the UK and Europe, before moving to Indonesia for two months, where the couple will work remotely and the children will attend their Hong Kong school online.
Ms Johnson says the family did not want to leave Hong Kong.
"For us to do this is a huge deal, we are really committed to Hong Kong. Our children go to local school and speak Mandarin,” she says.
"We wanted to be in an Asian time zone so the children could do online classes at their school,” says Mr Johnson. "We just want to ride this out until Hong Kong gets itself sorted.
"We haven’t left Hong Kong full time or anything, we just wanted to get out. But lot of our friends, ex pats, have just left the city and gone elsewhere.”
*some names have been changed to protect anonymity
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