Latest posts by Martin Moodie (see all)
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In Penny’s Bay they poke your nose
And swab your throat
There beneath the blue South China sky
I sit and wonder why…
From ‘Penny’s Bay’ by Helium3 (with apologies to The Beatles)
For those outside Hong Kong who don’t know it, Penny’s Bay is a reclaimed land zone in north-eastern Lantau Island, well-known in recent years as the site of the Hong Kong Disneyland resort. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it has become the home to Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre, a government facility created to isolate those who are close contacts of confirmed COVID cases.
Currently it houses 1,916 units (created from shipping containers), of which just 143 are in use as of yesterday. Since it opened, Penny’s Bay has seldom been out of the news in Hong Kong with many residents – particularly, it has to be said, ex-patriots – raging bitterly about being forced to stay in such confined accommodation.
It has been back in the news recently thanks to the rapid emergence of COVID-19’s Omicron variant. Residents returning from destinations where local transmission of the variant has been identified, or from places where cases have been exported to Hong Kong, must serve their first seven days of compulsory 21-day quarantine at Penny’s Bay. Non-residents cannot enter Hong Kong from Group A high-risk countries.
With the Group A list growing fast – by 5 December it will include 41 countries plus 12 African nations where even stricter controls apply – in line with the rapid spread of Omicron, some experts are asking whether the use of Penny’s Bay will remain viable for such cases.
University of Hong Kong epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling told local media RTHK, “We know that a number of times in the past year, Covid has been able to spread in quarantine hotels. It’s only a handful of occasions but it’s still a risk and so putting people into Penny’s Bay for the first seven days makes sense as a risk reduction measure but I’m not sure it’s sustainable. I just imagine to myself, what if the head of HSBC comes back to Hong Kong and has to spend a week in Penny’s Bay, before going to his hotel – Mandarin Oriental or wherever? It may not be ideal for Hong Kong to ask everybody to stay in Penny’s Bay first.”
I’m not sure that perspective will get much sympathy. What do we care about more, Hong Kong remaining COVID-free or the head of HSBC enjoying a five-star quarantine lifestyle might be a popular reaction, probably couched in rather stronger terms. Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee this week defended the new border-control measures, describing them as stringent enough to contain Omicron’s spread while she (thankfully) rejected calls for residents wishing to return from Group A to be denied entry.
Besides its admirable concern for its own citizens, the Hong Kong government has a burning economic priority in its handling of the pandemic – to get the mainland border reopened. That prospect, so distant for so long, now shapes as an imminent reality. With Mainland China’s ‘dynamic zero-COVID policy’ having proven remarkably effective in curbing the sporadic COVID outbreaks of the past few months, Hong Kong simply has to stay in step.
So while I concur with the view of International Air Transport Association IATA Director General Willie Walsh that government responses to the emergence of the Omicron variant are risking the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild, I get the Hong Kong position. We’re just going to have to take it on (and in) the nose. While that will mean further frustration for Hong Kong residents and for the SAR’s vital tourism industry, it’s all about the size of the prize. And no-one can doubt which is bigger.
In Penny’s Bay there are containers you’ll be locked up in
Every day is like the one you had before
And the people who come and go
They’ll say hello…