Erica had planned to return to Hong Kong on January 3 after graduating from her master’s studies in London. Now, she has no idea when she will make it home.

On December 21, authorities announced a complete ban on commercial flights from the UK to Hong Kong after the country reported a significantly more infectious mutation of the coronavirus. The ban — which was extended indefinitely on January 7 — took effect at midnight, leaving hundreds of Hong Kong citizens and residents suddenly stranded in Britain.

Photo: GovHK.

“It’s a lot of financial strain, a lot of stress, a lot of uncertainties,” the 26-year-old photojournalism graduate told HKFP. “You’re kind of in a limbo.”

Following the government’s original announcement of the travel ban until January 10 at the earliest, Erica had planned to return on January 11. Accounting for flights and hotel accommodation for the 21-day mandatory quarantine in Hong Kong, her original plans to come home cost her and her partner HK$30,000. “That’s just to come home,” she said.

After the January 7 announcement, she has again been forced to cancel her plans, leaving her out of pocket. With no easy solutions, she is choosing to travel to a third country at considerable extra expense in an attempt to get home. Both Erica and her partner, a Hong Kong resident, risk overstaying their UK visas. Her partner’s visa expires on January 24.

Erica. Photo: Supplied.

Erica — who only holds Hong Kong citizenship — spoke of her frustration at the Hong Kong government. “I’m a single citizen… I have no other country to go to.”

The ongoing uncertainty also means a constant drain on her finances. “[Hong Kong’s] the only place I can currently work,” she added.

‘No clarity’

Hundreds of Hong Kong citizens and residents are stranded in Britain with no idea when they can return home. Since the ban came into force over two weeks ago, the Immigration Department has received 420 requests for assistance.

Around 40 other countries have banned commercial flights from the UK in response to the emergence of the coronavirus variant. However, Hong Kong is believed to be the only jurisdiction to ban its own citizens from returning. India’s prohibition on the return of its citizens ended on Thursday.

Aircrew at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

Some of those who have been left stranded tell HKFP they feel let down by the Hong Kong government’s response to their appeals for help.

“We’ve had no clarity. The ban has been implemented for over two weeks. Since then, we have not received further information. We have no clue about what’s going on,” said Alexandra, a Hong Kong resident who had travelled to the UK to spend Christmas with her family.

“No one is proposing any solutions and nobody is providing us with any support. It’s extremely draining,” she added.

After extending the ban last Thursday, which also covered South Africa where a separate Covid-19 mutation has been detected, the government has been silent on any arrangements to help its citizens and residents trapped abroad.

Photo: GovHK.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the complete travel ban last week, saying it was a “very difficult decision,” but insisting it was necessary. “If we did nothing, it would be putting our city at great risk,” she said.

The UK has reported around 50,000 new daily infections for the past week as authorities struggle to contain the more infectious mutation. The country is in a national lockdown which could last some three months.

The government’s announcement of the extended ban gave no clear guidelines on when it may be lifted, saying only that it will review the issue every two weeks and “will announce whether adjustments are required.”

‘Nightmare’

For those whose lives have been upended, it is the uncertainty that is most frustrating.

Speaking with HKFP shortly after discovering her family’s flights on Monday had been cancelled, a 45-year old Hong Kong resident of over ten years fears that her children will not be able to return to school until March. The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, is stranded in the UK with her husband and two children.

“The hardest thing is, we can’t say to them ‘Dig deep, we just have to get through this for the next two weeks, and then we’ll be on a plane and it’ll get better’,” she said. “There has been no official announcement from the government as to when this nightmare ends.”

She and her husband had made the “rather difficult” decision to travel to the UK in December to visit ailing family members for two weeks. They originally planned to return in time for the new school term.

File photo: GovUK.

“It’s the uncertainty and the not knowing that’s having a big impact,” she added, saying her children had been in “hysterical tears every day” since late December. The two have been sleeping during the day and attending online lessons from midnight to five in the morning.

She and Alexandra are part of a WhatsApp group, along with others in the same boat. Drawing on data from group members, Alexandra estimates there are at least 500 people stranded in the UK, including children.

Alexandra says other members of the group are in dire situations, with some fearing for their jobs and one pregnant woman who has been separated from her husband.

When they reached out to Hong Kong’s Immigration Department, they were advised that the only way they could return was via a third country.

“The immigration department is telling us ‘You can still come back… you can go to Dubai for three weeks and then you can come to Hong Kong’,” Alexandra told HKFP.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“But it’s almost as though they don’t appreciate that will cost a lot and be financially draining for a lot of people,” she continued. “New flights to Dubai, a hotel in Dubai, new flights to Hong Kong, three weeks in a [quarantine] hotel in Hong Kong, on top of paying rent in Hong Kong — and if people are put on unpaid leave — it’s just financially devastating.”

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” the 45-year-old housewife said of the department’s advice. “Even if we follow the government’s advice and do [go to Dubai], there’s no guarantee that they [Hong Kong] will then still let us in at the end of the 21 days.”

Erica, the recent graduate, has nonetheless decided to risk it. Since the government’s announcement on Thursday, she and her partner have made the decision to spend an extra HK$37,000 in additional travel arrangements to return home. “I think the repercussions of overstaying in the UK outweigh the cost,” she said .

When asked by HKFP whether it advises stranded citizens to travel to a third country in order to come home, the Immigration Department sidestepped the question. “ImmD has provided them with relevant information and practical assistance according to their wishes, and follow-up with the local Chinese Embassy when necessary,” its response read.

‘No end in sight’

The stranded group say they understand the need for Hong Kong authorities to protect the city from the Covid-19 mutation, but hope for more compassion and communication from the government to reach a “mutually agreeable solution.”

“100 per cent I understand [the ban] is to protect [Hong Kong] residents, but there are ways to protect them than cutting its own citizens completely,” Erica told HKFP.

Airplane taxiing at Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: GovHK.

Ideally, the group would like the government to arrange a chartered flight to bring home Hong Kong residents and citizens, arguing that the city’s current pandemic measures are enough to contain any potential outbreak. They would agree to any extra measures deemed necessary.

“We’ll be tested and contained by their measures,” the mother of two said. “Most of us would be happy with… government quarantine if they can just get us home.”

Last March, the Hong Kong government arranged multiple chartered flights to repatriate over 500 Hong Kong residents stranded in China’s Hubei province, where coronavirus was first detected. Chartered flights have also been arranged for Hong Kong residents stranded on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, as well as India and Pakistan.

Failing arrangements for chartered flights back to Hong Kong, those stranded say they just want some kind of reassurance from the government that it hasn’t forgotten them. “At the very least, just some dates and guidance of when they will lift the ban,” the mother of two added.

“We just want something more concrete than ‘We’ll monitor’,” Alexandra said. “It just feels like there’s no end in sight…We just want to come home.”

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.