Hotel quarantine the right course, given our history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

No one wants to be trapped in a budget hotel for a week. So it is understandable that guests who have been quarantined at the Metropark Hotel in Wan Chai are unhappy. Keeping them confined to the hotel for seven days causes great inconvenience and it is a step authorities in other parts of the world have chosen not to take. The government stands accused of overreacting.

But officials were right to take this precautionary measure aimed at containing the spread of swine flu. The decision must be seen in the light of Hong Kong's experience during the Sars outbreak six years ago. The hotel was swiftly quarantined on Friday after a Mexican guest there was confirmed to have the new flu strain. He has been isolated in hospital and is in a stable condition.

Guests at the hotel who aired their grievances to officials at a meeting there yesterday are entitled to feel that they are being held in quarantine unnecessarily. There has only been one confirmed case in Hong Kong and there are, as yet, no indications that the virus is spreading in the community. Although swine flu has spread around the world, there have been no deaths outside Mexico and the United States. Infectious-diseases expert Lo Wing-lok said the government was overreacting and the measures taken excessive.

But, given Hong Kong's tragic experience with Sars, officials cannot afford to be seen to be taking any chances. They must err on the side of caution, at least at this early stage when the threat posed by the virus is unclear. Although there are other routes through which the disease may spread in Hong Kong, closing off the hotel blocks a potentially significant one. The situation is disturbingly reminiscent of what happened during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. Then, as now, a visitor infected with an infectious disease checked into a hotel. That index patient passed the deadly disease to other guests, who were then able to leave Hong Kong and spread it to people in other parts of the world. That cannot be allowed to happen again.

Hopefully, all the Metropark guests will remain healthy. If that is the case, no harm will have been done except to cause them a rather unpleasant stay in Hong Kong. Every effort must be made to put their minds at rest and make their time in quarantine as comfortable as possible. Some form of compensation would help. If, however, it turns out that there are guests who have the flu, the decision will clearly have been justified. They would swiftly receive treatment and the risk of them spreading the disease in the community would have been limited. Officials must continue to monitor the situation carefully in order to ensure that measures they take do not go too far. Once we have a better understanding of the virus, there may no longer be a need to quarantine buildings in this way.

The decision not to close schools is a sensible one. That would have been an overreaction given that we only have one confirmed flu case so far. But again, the situation must be reviewed constantly.

It is too early to say whether the government has succeeded in preventing the spread of the virus in our city. The hunt continues for people who may have come into contact with the Mexican victim. Striking the right balance between protecting public health and allowing people to continue with their normal daily lives is not easy - but that balance must be struck.