Hong Kong hotel quarantine move stirs controversy

(For full coverage of the flu outbreak, click [nFLU])

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HONG KONG, May 2 (Reuters) - Travellers quarantined in a Hong Kong hotel for a week after a Mexican guest tested positive for the H1N1 flu expressed dismay on Saturday at the tough steps, while an infectious disease expert said the authorities had over-reacted.

Police wearing surgical masks sealed off the Metropark hotel on Friday night after test results on the 25-year-old Mexican man were confirmed, ordering approximately 200 guests and 100 staff to stay in the hotel for the next seven days.

The measures taken by the authorities in Hong Kong underscore the concern here about the new flu and the confirmed case, Asia's first. Hong Kong was badly hit by the SARS virus in 2003 and has had many episodes of H5N1 bird flu for more than a decade.

Officials said no one would be allowed to leave the hotel in the Wanchai district, an area popular with tourists.

"They said everybody needed to go back to their rooms. I don't want to go to my room because I want to be out," an Australian man in the hotel told local television by telephone.

"They told me I will stay here. I won't be allowed out and this is it."

Brice Chevallereau, a French tourist, checked into the hotel on Friday afternoon but did not stay the night. When he returned to the hotel on Saturday, he was told by authorities he would have to be quarantined.

"Why do I have to go inside?" Chevallereau asked. "I just stayed two minutes in the lobby. It's not fair."

Journalists and camera crews massed on the street outside the hotel, which is being guarded by police and cordoned off with blue and white tape. Shops near the hotel were shuttered.

"How can there be business? The police vans are all around here," said Li Mingtai, a waiter at a nearby restaurant.

Twelve guests who had refused to stay were taken to a lodging house close to the border with mainland China. The site was used to quarantine Hong Kong people who were exposed to the SARS virus back in 2003, a government spokesman said.


The Mexican man arrived in Hong Kong from Mexico on Thursday following a stopover in Shanghai. He developed a fever after arriving and took a taxi to a hospital on Thursday evening. He is in a stable condition, officials said.

Authorities appealed for 142 passengers and crew on the same flight as the Mexican to report to health officials.

Lo Wing-lok, an infectious disease expert, said the government was over-reacting.

"He would have been infectious starting from the time he was on the plane. Think about all the people around him on the plane, while he was going through customs, waiting for baggage, in the taxi, in the hotel and when he got to hospital," Lo said.

"So how can it be effective if the government is just trying to isolate people in the hotel, it is a mission impossible."

Health officials said the "essential needs" of those inside the hotel would be looked after. They would also get regular medical check-ups and psychologists were on standby.

An elderly couple passed a bag of clothes to police at the entrance for their daughter, who works in the hotel.

The new virus, which is largely swine and part avian and human, has killed up to 101 people in Mexico, but confirmed cases in other countries have been mild.

Nevertheless, news of the infected traveller caused jitters in Hong Kong and some people were taking no chances.

In subways, ferry terminals and on the streets, more people went about their business on Saturday wearing surgical masks, although some had masks fashioned out of cloth.

At the checkout counters in a supermarket, residents rifled through masks and sterilisers.

A sign nearby said: "Prevent flu infection." (Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Stefanie McIntyre, editing by Dean Yates)