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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Back in Hong Kong: Mandatory Home Quarantine

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

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020 is a strange year considering the fact that I had to flee back to Hong Kong in the middle of March amidst the growing cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the U.K.

I returned to Hong Kong back on March 15, 2020. Two days later, the government announced that beginning on March 19, all foreign arrivals into Hong Kong must undergo a mandatory 14-day home quarantine. Although I returned before the deadline, I also underwent a voluntary 14-day home quarantine to play my part in preventing the virus.


Proportionate?


This Regulation was introduced under section 8 of the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance, which authorizes the Chief Executive in Council to make regulations for 'preventing, combating or alleviating the effects of the public health emergency and protecting public health’.[1] This got me thinking: What are the relevant human rights implications of these regulations?

Considering the guidance from the Human Rights Watch, we are reminded that under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), restrictions on rights for the purpose of alleviating the effects of a public health emergency must be lawful, necessary and proportionate.[2] Considering the 'lawful' aspect of these regulations, there is a prescribed piece of law that authorizes the HK government to make such regulations (as mentioned early).

Necessity is the next issue – with the coronavirus being declared as a global pandemic, it seems necessary for the government to take relevant precautions. Finally, we must consider proportionality – is it proportionate to only target incoming foreign arrivals to undergo mandatory home quarantine?

Considering the statistics surrounding the virus back in late February and early March in Hong Kong, the spread of the virus had slowed down, with very few cases within the community and most cases being inputted cases. Fast-forward to mid-March, when the coronavirus is announced and confirmed as a pandemic by the WHO, the situation around the world begins to worsen as the virus begins to show its effects outside of Asia in North America and Europe.[3] This triggered a wave of international students returning to Hong Kong, worrying that they may not be able to should they wait any longer. With an increased number of arrivals in Hong Kong, this inevitably led to a new spike in confirmed cases as a flood of imported cases were found. Thus, this resulted in the Hong Kong government announcing the introduction of the mandatory home quarantine regulation, anyone who disobeys the quarantine order shall being liable for an HKD 25,000 (roughly £2,600) fine and up to 6 months imprisonment.[4] All arrivals were given a wristband with a QR code linked to an app on your smartphone that tracks their location.

Given the overwhelming proportion of new cases in Hong Kong mainly being imported cases, it is no surprise that the government took the initiative to target incoming arrivals. The issue of proportionality may prompt you to question whether it is necessary to impose such regulation on all arrivals to the city. Well, to answer this question, the government did not impose this quarantine policy on all arrivals as its first step. In the beginning, the quarantine policy only targeted arrivals from high-risk regions, such as Italy, certain parts of China, South Korea, Japan, etc.. However, as the situation in the U.K. and U.S. worsened, the government decided to impose a blanket ban on all arrivals given that there are over 30,000 Hong Kong students studying abroad, with the U.K. accounting for the largest proportion at over 15,000 students.[5] As the number of imported cases in Hong Kong increases each day, almost half of these cases are attributable to returning students from the U.K. or the U.S. Thus, considering the statistics, it seems proportionate that the Hong Kong government imposes this policy on all arrivals to Hong Kong.

To Prosecute or not to Prosecute?

At its early stage, the policy heavily relied on the self-discipline of citizens, as the technology was not working as expected and was faulty.[6] Eventually, people found a way to slip off their wristbands, and some people, even while wearing their wristbands, decided to disobey their quarantine orders and leave their homes.[7] Frankly speaking, I was very disappointed when I saw news articles about people disobeying their quarantine orders. I always thought Hongkongers were better than that, and after experiencing the breakout of SARS in 2003, I thought they would understand that everyone is responsible to play their part during a public health emergency like this. Regardless, given the housing crisis of Hong Kong, sometimes I wonder whether or not this mandatory home quarantine policy failed to cater to those individuals and families that live in small homes with tight spaces, or those who suffer from domestic abuse or in the more extreme case, those who are homeless – how would individuals self-isolate in those cases? Are there special meaures that the government can take to help these individuals? Would prosecuting these individuals be too harsh?

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government started taking a harsh approach, which is to use prosecution as a deterrent to prevent individuals from violating their quarantine orders. Multiple individuals were intercepted at border control points as they attempted to leave the city during their quarantine period.[8] Following these incidents, Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned that if people continue to violate their quarantine orders, they would face ‘zero tolerance’ from the government and face prosecution without warning.[9] I believe this was required because at the early stages of the mandatory home quarantine policy, there were noted to be over 77 cases of individuals disobeying their quarantine orders.[10] Fast forward now to early April, I hear much fewer cases of people violating their quarantine orders, suggesting that the government's harsh stance and approach seem to be effective somehow.

Conclusion


During difficult times as such, it is impossible to accommodate every individual. I understand the stance of the Hong Kong government, but I also hope that more can be done for vulnerable and marginalized groups that have to face mandatory quarantine. Regardless, I believe prosecution is indeed required for those who defy their quarantine orders, because these individuals are putting their entire community at risk, and for those who are able, staying at home for 14-days is not the end of the world – perhaps we can consider it as a well-deserved mental break in our hustling and bustling city. Thus, Hongkongers should all pull their weight and take their responsibility to quarantine seriously, and hopefully, these prosecuted cases act as an effective deterrent to prevent similar behavior.


And finally, to end this article, I hope everyone is doing well during these strange and unsettling times, and remember: Stay home to stay safe and save lives!

Nicole Chan

Feature Writer

Asia

SOURCES

[1] Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance, s 8 [2] Human Rights Watch, 'Human Rights Dimension of COVID-19 Response' (Human Rights Watch, 19 March 2020) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/19/human-rights-dimensions-covid-19-response#_Toc35446580> accessed 4 April 2020 [3] BBC, ‘Coronavirus confirmed as a pandemic by World Health Organization’ (BBC, 11 March 2020) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51839944> accessed 4 April 2020 [4] Compulsory Quarantine of Persons Arriving at Hong Kong from Foreign Places Regulation, s 8(5) [5] Callan Quinn, ‘Hong Kong: education overseas offers “insurance” as protests continue’ (The Pie News, 18 December 2019) <https://thepienews.com/news/hong-kong-study-abroad/> accessed 4 April 2020 [6] Shawna Kwan, ‘Hong Kong’s Faulty Wristbands Allowed Quarantined to Wander Free’ (Bloomberg, 24 March 2020) <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-24/hong-kong-s-faulty-wristbands-allow-quarantined-to-wander-free > accessed 4 April 2020 [7] SCMP Editorial, ‘Think twice before stepping outside amid Hong Kong quarantine orders’ (South China Morning Post, 26 March 2020) <https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3077001/think-twice-stepping-outside> accessed 4 April 2020 [8] RTHK, ‘Pair to be prosecuted for skipping quarantine’ (Radio Television Hong Kong, 17 February 2020) <https://news.rthk.hk/rthk/en/component/k2/1509122-20200217.htm > accessed 4 April 2020 [9] Elizabeth Cheung and Alvin Lum, ‘Coronavirus: overseas returnees breaking home quarantine in Hong Kong face ‘zero tolerance’ and prosecution’ (South China Morning Post, 21 March 2020) <https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3076285/coronavirus-four-accused-breaking-home-quarantine> accessed 4 April 2020 [10] Sing Tao Daily ’77 people violate quarantine order, 40 of which reported by citizens’ (Translation from Chinese) (Sing Tao Daily, 27 March 2020) <https://std.stheadline.com/instant/articles/detail/1233844/%E5%8D%B3%E6%99%82-%E9%A6%99%E6%B8%AF-77%E4%BA%BA%E9%81%95%E6%AA%A2%E7%96%AB%E4%BB%A4-%E7%95%B6%E4%B8%AD40%E4%BA%BA%E7%94%B1%E5%B8%82%E6%B0%91%E8%88%89%E5%A0%B1> accessed 4 April 2020

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