Travellers arriving in Hong Kong by air must endure a series of Covid tests, a two-week hotel quarantine and government tracking. British journalist Marisa Cannon reports
While infection rates in Europe and North America continue to soar, East Asia has seemingly nailed its handling of Covid-19. Many of the lockdown measures that international governments put into action last spring are a distant memory across much of the region, in large part because of the rapid response during the first wave, stringent border controls, quarantine and social distancing policies, and world-class track-and-trace systems.
I tested one of these systems on a recent trip from London to Hong Kong, which has implemented a no-nonsense travel mandate allowing only Hong Kong residents (those who have a working/student visa, the “right to land” or the “right of abode”, as detailed in local immigration law) to enter the city.
All travellers, except those entering from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan, are subject to a two-week quarantine which must be undertaken in a hotel room at their expense, and before you ask, Airbnbs and serviced apartments are not allowed.
14 days in a hotel room in Hong Kong – where square footage is priced at a notorious premium – will test anyone’s mettle – see here for my review on working remotely while quarantined in a 280 sqft hotel room, here.
To be clear, this broad strokes hotel quarantine is a relatively new fixture in Hong Kong’s arrival policy. Before November 13, arrivals from low-risk countries were able to quarantine from the comfort of their own home, but a rise in cases led to the current clamp down as a means of mitigating the risk of infection at residents’ homes.
From December 22, the government issued an update, mandating that all arrivals from outside China must quarantine at one of 36 designated hotels.
As reported in the South China Morning Post, they will be required to take an additional Covid-19 test after completing quarantine – on the 19th day after their arrival – to curb the small number of imported cases. (For up-to-date travel advice from the UK to Hong Kong, visit the FCO.)
The UK has since announced that, until further notice, all arriving passengers, including Hong Kong residents, who have stayed in the UK for more than two hours in the past 14 days are not allowed to board any flight to Hong Kong.
When I started planning my trip to Hong Kong, friends based in the city directed me to a Facebook group called “HK Quarantine Support Group”, set up for travellers like me. This was, and continues to be, one of the most valuable resources for anyone repatriating or travelling to Hong Kong currently, brimming with salient intel and experiences shared by veterans of the journey.
At the time I travelled at the end of November, requirements for entry into Hong Kong were listed on the government website as follows:
- A negative Covid-19 test taken at least 72 hours before arrival, issued by an ISO 15189 accredited lab or healthcare centre
- Hong Kong Identity Card and/or Hong Kong work/student visa
- Proof of a 14-day hotel room reservation in Hong Kong
To fulfill the first requirement, I booked the Collinson’s pre-departure LAMP rapid testing facility at Heathrow Terminal 5, where my flight would depart from. Collinson opened testing facilities at T2 and T5 in October for travellers whose destinations require a negative test prior to departure.
As the LAMP test has been approved by the Hong Kong authorities, and provides a result within 90 minutes, it was a no-brainer to book myself a test before check-in. Tests cost £80, though some airlines offer minimal discounts, so it’s worth enquiring at the Collinson desk or on your carrier’s website.
I arrived at the airport five hours before take-off in case anything went rogue – I had read stories of long queues and delays at check-in for passengers who struggled to prove their eligibility. Happily, I had no issues.
The other two requirements were easy enough to lock down, though the first hotel booking I made was cancelled on account of it not accepting guests from “high risk countries”, of which the UK is one.
At the time of writing, the mandate has changed so that overseas travellers are required to quarantine in one of a selection of designated hotels as part of its “quarantine venue scheme”. Again, the Facebook group is an ideal repository for updates on the evolving travel restrictions.
Post negative test result, I continued to check-in, where I presented proof of my hotel booking, HKID and Covid test certificate. If there is any ambiguity regarding your entry eligibility, it’s worth getting email clarification on your status from HK Immigration to show at check-in.
Boarding began from the back of the plane to minimise unnecessary contact, and I felt fortunate to have no one in the seat next to me, given the flight was busy, being so close to the winter holidays.
Passengers were required to wear masks for the duration of the flight, though you could take them off for meals. Once I boarded, I was given a “hygiene amenity kit” containing antibacterial wipes and hand gel, which I used to sanitise touchpoints around my seat. Aside from that, much of the flight was as it would have been pre-Covid.
On arrival in Hong Kong, I was met with what politicians might describe as a “world beating” passenger processing system. There were several stages, but I experienced no more than 15 minutes’ waiting time between each phase, which included security checks, issuing of a tracking wristband, an arrival Covid-19 test, immigration and baggage collection.
After disembarking the aircraft, passengers are instructed to fill out the government’s health declaration form, which asks where you have travelled in the last 14 days, your contact address in Hong Kong, and quarantine hotel address.
Upon completion, the form presents you with a personalised QR code, which staff will check before admitting you through security. You are then asked to download the Hong Kong government’s Stay Home Safe app.
After security, I was led through the terminal to the “tracking station”, where passengers are given a tracking wristband that pairs with the Stay Home Safe app. If you’re a technophobe, fear not – there are legions of socially distanced personnel throughout the terminal on hand to help.
Pairing the app is, in any case, incredibly simple, and staff will first test that your contact number is correct – they’ll need this to contact you to arrange your final Covid test on Day 9, or in the event of a quarantine breach, of course – before guiding you through the settings on your phone to pair your wristband with the app.
The next stage requires passengers to present their hotel booking, HKID and negative Covid-19 test to staff. After these were verified, I was issued several documents, including:
My official “compulsory quarantine order”, detailing my name, ID number, hotel quarantine address, and the date of my release.
- A user guide for the Stay Home Safe app
- Details of specimen collection on Day 12 of quarantine
- A quarantine handbook containing FAQs and a temperature monitoring checklist (travellers are required to take their temperature twice daily while in quarantine)
- A document to record the registration number of the taxi taken your quarantine hotel
instructions for the next 12 hours as passengers await Covid-19 test results.
After receiving the documents, I was pointed in the direction of the testing centre at the back of the terminal, where, instead of the nasal and throat swab I had at Heathrow, passengers are asked to spit into a receptacle. This is not a rapid test, and results are delivered between eight to 12 hours later.
I was given a cubicle number and shown a brief demonstration video on how to use the kit, which includes a paper funnel to collect your saliva in a small plastic cup with a lid, and several alcohol wipes and tissues to clean the area/cup afterwards.
Once complete, I was guided to a seating area to wait for a shuttle to the adjacent terminal, where I would pass through immigration and collect my baggage, before being taken to a government-sponsored hotel for the night – the Rambler Garden Hotel in Tsing Yi – to await my test results. Only then, would I be allowed to proceed to my quarantine hotel (click here for my full review of the two-week quarantine experience).
Basic meals were provided for dinner and breakfast in a takeaway box left outside my room, and hotel staff rang my room at 11.40am the next day telling me to check-out and proceed to my quarantine hotel via taxi.
If you test positive, you will be taken to hospital. This information is laid out in the documents given to you at the airport – one of which asks passengers to record the registration number of the taxi that takes them to their quarantine hotel, for contact tracing purposes.
Once in my hotel quarantine room, I activated the StayHomeSafe app. This involves pressing the “I am home” button on the app, and walking around the room for 60 seconds while the app gathers data from the area that you’ll be inhabiting for the next two weeks.
During your quarantine, the app will detect and analyse the environmental communication signals around you and in the neighbourhood, such as Bluetooth, wifi and geospatial signals, together with your electronic wristband to ensure you are staying put. If the app finds your location suspicious, it will follow up immediately.
On Day 9, I was contacted by Prenetics, one of the private testing providers that the HK government is using to conduct final Covid tests among quarantine arrivals. I was told that I would receive my testing kit the next day, and that they would return to collect my specimen the day after that.
At 4pm on Day 10, a courier delivered the kit to my hotel room – a plastic bag containing instructions, a funnel and a small plastic tub with a lid, almost identical to the one I received at the airport the week earlier.
The following day, the courier collected the kit around 2pm. The information booklet that each passenger receives states that you won’t hear back from Prenetics if you test negative, and that you can leave your room at 23:59 on the evening of the 12th night (in total it was 13 nights of quarantine, including the first hotel).
Having heard nothing from Prenetics, I left my room at the stroke of midnight, and celebrated my release – and confirmed Covid-negative state – with a welcome beer (or three) with friends.