Isolation order in UK has parents fuming

Michael Gibb

The quarantined children arrived in a fleet of coaches, their faces hidden from the photographers and journalists behind tightly drawn curtains. And for the first two days, it was chaos.

'Everyone was agitated and the children were very anxious,' said Denea Wright, managing director of an upmarket activity and conference venue on the Isle of Wight. 'TV cameras were everywhere and no one could do their job.'

More than 140 schoolchildren from Hong Kong and China have been sent to East Dene, a rambling country house set in 4 hectares of parkland, after 30 independent schools in Britain imposed a 10-day quarantine to allay fears that Sars would spread to their schools.

The isolation order has left many Hong Kong parents confused and upset.

'I am very angry with the UK schools,' said May Yau Wing-lam, whose 15-year-old daughter is due back at Bedgebury School in the southeast of England next week for the start of the summer term.

'I tried calling my daughter's school over the weekend to find out what we should do, but no one answered. We don't know if she'll be quarantined or not. It's very distressing,' she said.

Ms Yau is one of many parents in Hong Kong trying to find out what will happen to their children when they fly back to the UK. She is unsure where her daughter will go, who will be responsible for her, and who will pay for it all.

'My daughter is so worried she can't stop crying,' said Ms Yau.

Battie Fung Tsz-yu, general manager of Academic Asia, consultancy representing Hong Kong families with children studying in Britain, said parents felt they had been pressured into agreeing to the quarantine order.

'They are worried that if they don't, their children might not be able to take their exams.' Britain's O-level and A-level exams start early next month.

Adrian Underwood, national director of the Boarding Schools Association, blamed media hype for the chaotic atmosphere. 'Sadly, emotions are running high,' he said. Parents were afraid that their children might catch Sars from the Hong Kong and Chinese children, he said.

Mr Underwood insisted that schools were acting within their rights, even though the UK government has said the measures are unnecessary. 'These schools are independent and act in the best interests of their communities,' he said.

Hong Kong's chief representative in the UK, Andrew Leung Kin-pong, director-general of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, reiterated his view that the measures were discriminatory.

'Why are adults not being quarantined as well?' he asked.

Since the order was imposed, 15 detainees have been released and sent back to their schools, said Ms Wright. 'People are beginning to realise that these kids are not a threat to anyone,' she said.

More than 125 students will remain at East Dene until the middle of next week.