Hong Kong’s ban on travellers from Britain has left hundreds of city residents stranded and facing a costly six-week journey if they want to get back anytime soon.
Those desperate to return must spend three weeks in a country outside Britain before continuing to Hong Kong, where they will have to spend another three weeks in quarantine at a hotel.
The situation has been changing rapidly in recent days, leaving those stranded struggling to work out how to get back, how long their journey will take and what it will cost.
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On Thursday, Hong Kong extended by at least two weeks an entry ban on anyone who had been in Britain for a minimum of two hours in the previous 21 days. The ban was first introduced on December 22 to prevent the import of a more transmissible strain of Covid-19 spreading in Britain.
The city also extended a ban on flights from South Africa, where the strain reportedly first emerged, and the 21-day compulsory quarantine requirement for all arrivals from outside mainland China, Taiwan and Macau.
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In Britain, the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test had surpassed 80,000 on Saturday. The United States, Brazil, India and Mexico have recorded more Covid-19 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. With the highly transmissible new variant of the virus surging across Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged the public to stay at home and is rushing out vaccines faster than the country’s European neighbours. A lockdown across Britain means people must stay at home and only leave for legitimate reasons, which include going to work, exercise and shopping for essentials.
Many of those stranded, meanwhile, were considering stopping over in Dubai, as the Hong Kong government itself had advised previously. However, on Friday, the city’s authorities banned all Emirates flights from Dubai and Bangkok until January 22, after three of the airline’s passengers tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in Hong Kong.
The latest news left the group in Britain scrambling to decide what to do next, and whether to proceed with plans to fly to Dubai in the hope that Hong Kong will lift the Emirates ban.
The long journey back will cost tens of thousands of dollars for 42 nights in hotel rooms at their transit stop and in Hong Kong.
“There is so much uncertainty, it’s outrageous,” said Alexandra, a Hong Kong professional stranded in Britain, who asked for her surname to be withheld.
‘Can’t afford to relax restrictions’
Before the Emirates ban was announced, a Hong Kong government spokesman said the authorities recognised its tightened restrictions were stringent and affected the return journeys of Hong Kong residents in Britain and South Africa.
But the spokesman added: “We simply cannot afford to relax the relevant restrictions at this juncture, lest the anti-pandemic efforts of the entire community go down the drain.”
The restrictions would be reviewed fortnightly, the spokesman said in a statement.
With the travel ban in place, several major airlines had earlier cancelled all flights from Britain to Hong Kong at least till January 25.
“It has become a real nightmare,” said Briton Adam Souissi, 39, a real estate executive who has been living in Hong Kong for two years and was visiting family in Britain when the ban came down.
“It’s had a heavy impact on my business,” he said, explaining that the time difference and lack of face-to-face interaction with clients and colleagues had affected productivity.
Soussi is considering either hunkering down in Britain until the travel ban is lifted, or doing the six-week journey through another country.
“Either way I’ll be paying for this - either personally or through the business,” he said, disappointed at the lack of guidance and financial support from the Hong Kong government.
Before Friday’s ban on Emirates flights, Dubai was the preferred stop for stranded passengers considering the six-week trip back to Hong Kong.
Dubai only requires arrivals from Britain to take a Covid-19 test upon entry, with no mandatory quarantine once the test comes back negative.
Now some are considering stopping over in the Maldives instead, although there are no direct flights between the Indian Ocean island state and Hong Kong.
‘Will my wife give birth in hotel?’
Among those affected are a number of teachers and students who must now join their online classes at midnight in Britain because of the time difference with Hong Kong.
A Hong Kong resident stuck in Britain with her husband and two teenage daughters, who attend an international school in the city, said the uncertainty was hard to bear and left her girls in tears on some days.
The family, who have been living in Hong Kong for a decade, went to Britain to visit unwell relatives, aware of the risks of travelling during a pandemic.
“Had we known what would happen, we would never have got on that plane,” said the woman, who declined to be named.
The timing of Hong Kong’s travel ban could not have been worse for permanent resident Matt Hayes and his wife, who is more than 30 weeks’ pregnant with their second child.
His wife and three-year-old son left for Britain last month to visit a seriously ill family member, and Hayes was due to join them later. But the travel ban took effect while they were mid-flight, keeping him in Hong Kong and preventing his wife and son from returning.
With the clock ticking down until she is unable to fly because of her advanced pregnancy, the six-week trip may be the only choice if Hayes hopes to be present for his baby’s birth.
“We would rather not have to do it, but it’s the only route the government has given us to get back,” he said.
The plan now is for his wife and son to fly to Kenya, where they have family, and he will meet them there before returning to Hong Kong together, hopefully early next month.
With the baby due at the end of February, Hayes is keeping his fingers crossed that the family will complete their 21-day quarantine in time. But given all that has happened so far, he is worried the baby might arrive while they are still in quarantine.
Almost amused at the thought, he asked: “What do we do then, give birth in a hotel room?”
Alexandra, who went to Britain in mid-December to visit her 93-year-old grandfather, expected to be there for only three weeks.
She has been staying up at night, both for her job and to try reaching any Hong Kong official who might be able to help.
She recalled asking an immigration officer over the phone whether a charter flight could be organised to bring the group of stranded residents back.
When the official laughed at her question, she snapped, saying: “What are you laughing for?”
She said she felt so frustrated then, as it struck her that the plight of those stranded in Britain was not a serious matter for officials in Hong Kong.
Even if the government could not resolve all their problems, she felt it could have appointed a liaison official to keep the group updated instead of leaving them on their own.
“We just think this falls way below what is expected of a government during a pandemic,” said Alexandra.
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