Washington on Tuesday slammed mainland Chinese and pro-Beijing media outlets over what it called a “disinformation campaign” after they accused coronavirus-infected US consulate staff in Hong Kong of claiming diplomatic immunity to avoid quarantine.
Wading into the controversy, Hong Kong leader Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor confirmed that two infected US consulate employees, a married couple, had already been sent to the hospital on Monday night, while special permission had been granted to allow their children to join them instead of being sent into quarantine as per long-enforced rules.
But she emphasised the exceptional treatment for the pair was made on compassionate grounds and based on their family circumstances, rather than their status as consulate workers.
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Lam’s clarification came as more than 80 per cent of about 240 members polled in a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong raised concerns over young children being sent to government quarantine facilities. More than half of the respondents said it might affect their decision to remain in the city if the policy was not revoked.
The political row erupted on Monday when an expanding Covid-19 outbreak engulfing Hong Kong’s wealthier neighbourhoods, white-collar workers and the expatriate community led to the infection of the two US consulate employees.
A pro-Beijing online news portal, Dot Dot News, accused the pair of invoking diplomatic immunity to avoid quarantine. The allegation, despite being denied by the consulate, was quickly picked up by mainland tabloid Global Times and two other pro-Beijing outlets in the city which suggested the pair’s behaviour had “sparked a public outcry”.
The Beijing-friendly Federation of Trade Union also staged a protest outside the consulate’s Garden Road offices in Central on Tuesday, following a similar rally by the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong a day earlier.
The protesters demanded that “no one should be above” the city’s anti-pandemic rules and urged all United States consular staff to be tested as soon as possible.
In a statement posted on its Facebook page on Tuesday, the consulate hit back, saying: “The disinformation campaign from Chinese-controlled media about the two positive cases among US consulate personnel, and our response, is false.
“We reject these efforts to spread disinformation about a critical public health issue.”
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The US Department of State declined to address further enquiries by the Post, including about how many staff members were deemed close contacts of the pair and were required to be quarantined, or when the consulate would reopen following a deep cleaning. Under Centre for Health Protection guidelines, workplaces with a confirmed case should close for 14 days for disinfection.
Speaking ahead of the weekly meeting with her advisers in the Executive Council, Lam said the government allowed for children to be admitted to hospital along with their parents and that the special dispensation had been granted to the consulate workers, who also had a daughter who tested preliminary-positive.
“We are a compassionate government … Instead of sending the very young kids on their own to the quarantine centre or asking other relatives and friends to go into a quarantine centre with these kids, we will exceptionally allow the admission of their children into the hospital as well,” she said. “We are applying the exceptional treatment, not exceptional because they are US consulate staff, but exceptional because of their family circumstances.”
Lam added: “We have no policy to deliberately separate children from their parents but public health concerns have to be respected because it is good for the community at large.”
Barrister Athena Kung Ching-yee said that unless consulate staff were not performing their duties, they enjoyed immunity from criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction in the countries where they work under the principles of various international treaties and local laws.
The relevant rules in Hong Kong, she said, included the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China Concerning Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities.
However, she added, the immunities regulations also stated that diplomats who enjoyed the privilege must respect national laws.
Arrangements for families hit by Covid-19 were thrust into the spotlight this past week when a flare-up of cases enveloping part of the expatriate community on Hong Kong Island, affecting international school teachers, bankers and lawyers, forced many children into quarantine. They are among about 120 children and teens currently isolated at the government facilities.
While the government has always allowed minors to isolate with a parent or guardian, many families are complaining the sparse conditions present safety risks for babies and make them stressed. The Hospital Authority also said at the weekend it was investigating claims circulating on social media that young children had been separated from their parents and later restrained in their hospital beds after testing positive for the virus.
In a statement issued on Tuesday night, a centre spokesman emphasised that “each and every decision has been made in the interests of the children and their families” in cases of mandatory quarantine for children.
He said anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 would be admitted to a public hospital and isolated, while other family members must go to a quarantine camp. He reiterated the official policy for allowing adults to accompany minors in quarantine and said officials were “doing their best ... to make the quarantine centre environment as child-friendly as possible”, including providing a wide range of items such as diapers and baby food.
In releasing the survey findings, Amcham said it did not intend to lobby for any exemption from rules, but called on the government to clear information about quarantine arrangements for minors be given to schools and parents.
An online petition urging the government to consider allowing home quarantine for young children had so far collected more than 5,100 signatures.
Some local school heads and parents called on health authorities to make professional judgments that were based on infection control risks when sending students into quarantine, and they hoped the government would not give special treatment to certain groups simply because they were more vocal.
“And we also hope that all those affected will respect the system and be considerate to others,” one secondary school principal said.
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