Hong Kong’s coronavirus quarantine rules must have children’s best interests at heart
- Despite government assurances, reports of young children and babies being separated from their parents in quarantine are deeply troubling
- International law and practice can help strike a balance between preventing the spread of Covid-19 and the needs of children
The recent cluster of Covid-19 cases has once again made clear that Hong Kong’s policy of mandatory admission to hospital for positive cases and quarantining of close contacts is problematic when it comes to families and children.
For example, if a child is admitted to hospital with Covid-19, a parent could be allowed to accompany the child. If a child and parent are both admitted to hospital, they will consider placing them in the same room, subject to the availability of isolation capacities.
This is a step towards allaying fears, but it raises a question. If this is the policy, why are there so many reports of families being separated against their will? While the release indicates efforts might be made to keep parents and children together, there is no guarantee. A great deal is still left to the discretion of the authorities.
While there is some comfort in the fact children will not be sent to quarantine completely unaccompanied, it is troubling that there is still the possibility of very young infants – even babies – being separated from their parents.
If both parents are in hospital and there is no alternative carer, “the public hospitals will provide suitable arrangements”. Does this mean the child will be allowed to stay with their parents in hospital, or will they be placed into government care?
In implementing this policy, a balance needs to be found between preventing the spread of the disease and the special needs of children as a vulnerable group.
International law and practice can shed some light here. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that decisions relating to children, especially in relation to separation from parents, must be made in light of the best interests of the child. China is a party to the convention and has extended its application to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong already adopts the best interests of the child principle in some areas of domestic law. The Guardianship of Minors Ordinance, for example, requires that the best interests of the child shall be the “first and paramount consideration” in deciding the custody of a minor.
Alternatively, if home quarantine is not permitted, quarantine facilities should be improved. The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children the right to education and the right to health. These are not controversial rights and are largely recognised as basic human rights.
While the convention is not a domestic law, and Hong Kong has not been determined as violating it in relation to its Covid-19 policies, this widely approved instrument can act as a guide. The best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration in developing Hong Kong’s quarantine policies relating to children.
Isabella Seif is a lawyer specialised in public international law. She is currently conducting research at the University of Hong Kong on the application of international human rights treaties in Hong Kong and other Asian jurisdictions