Chinese police place Britons in enforced isolation after ferry trip

Teacher was given 20 minutes to pack and must remain in hotel room for two weeks

Molly Blackall and Mattha Busby  (The Guardian)

Thu 5 Mar 2020 18.41 GMT

Joanna Davison and her partner were relaxing in their flat in Shenzhen, China, when the phone rang. She was told by the Chinese authorities that they had been exposed to the coronavirus at close proximity and that officials were on their way.

“It was terrifying. Five people in hazmats turned up at our apartment, they looked like ghostbusters,” she said. “They took swabs from our nose and throat and said they’d return in the morning so we should start packing.”

In the end, they came sooner. Late on Sunday night, a team of masked officers who described themselves as police arrived at their door. They announced that the couple were being forcibly quarantined and warned that if they resisted, the police would use force.

It transpired that Joanna, 30, an international schoolteacher, and her partner, had been onboard the same ferry as a man who later tested positive for coronavirus, while traveling from Hong Kong to Shenzhen two days earlier.

Joanna Davison in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Jo Davison

The couple were told they would have to stay in state-organised isolation for two weeks from the date of the ferry journey, and are now counting down the days until they can leave on 13 March.

Joanna and her partner were told they couldn’t self-isolate because they had been in close contact with a confirmed case. They have read, however, in Chinese state media that other passengers on the ferry have been allowed to quarantine themselves at home.

“We don’t know how they determined that we were that close to the guy who was infected, it’s a mystery,” Jo said.

The couple were allowed 20 minutes to pack their belongings and feed their two cats before being put in the back of an ambulance and taken to a hotel across the road, which was being used by the Chinese authorities.

“Everyone around us was in hazmat suits and staying really far away,” she said. “When we got to the hotel, I saw that my partner and I had different room numbers allocated. I was in hysterics. Eventually they just agreed it was easier to let us stay together.”

Joanna contacted the British consulate but found them “disinterested” and “non-responsive”.

“I rang the crisis centre in London and the line cut off, and no one called me back. I was in tears, so it was concerning that they didn’t call me again,” she said.

Inside the hotel they found their bedroom to be dirty, with hair and broken glass strewn on the floor. They have been told they must remain a metre apart, despite being in the same room, and wear masks at all times.

Rubbish piles up in the corridor outside the hotel room. Photograph: Jo Davison

The couple are woken at 7am each day to be tested for coronavirus symptoms, given masks, and even asked about their bowel movements. Later their temperatures are checked again. “The tests are painful,” she said. “The swab up your nose feels like it’s prodding your brain.”

Despite this, Joanna and her partner say they are grateful to be together as they face another nine days in the hotel. “I can’t even imagine what this experience would be like if we were separated,” Joanna said.

The view from Frances’s isolation room. Photograph: Frances

Britons “Frances”, 25, and her fiancé “James” (not their real names) haven’t been so lucky and have been isolated in different rooms. They were onboard the same ferry as Jo and were also deemed to have been in close proximity to the infected individual.

Frances and James were tested at their home on Sunday night but were not told they would have to leave.

“Later that night, at about 11pm, we got a call saying, we’re going now. There was an ambulance outside our place. We got in and a police car followed the ambulance with its sirens on. We didn’t know what was happening,” she said.

Despite the couple’s protests, they were put in hotel rooms two doors apart, after authorities insisted they could get infected more quickly, or from one another, if they were quarantined together.

Like Joanna, Frances found her room “filthy”. The hotel wouldn’t put the air conditioner on because of unstable electricity and she waited 12 hours for a fan and a towel to have a shower. Two days later, they brought soap and sanitiser.

Both couples say communication with the British authorities has improved in the last two days and they are now in regular contact with the British consulate in Beijing, which is liaising with the Chinese authorities.

Frances is struggling to cope without her partner and said it has been awful to be in quarantine alone. “I can’t believe we can’t be together,” she said.

“We’d be absolutely fine if we had to self-isolate. Why some people can and we can’t, boggles me,” Frances added.