Hong Kong hospitals will no longer separate Covid-infected children from parents

U-turn comes after health policy caused outrage among families and campaigners in city

Hong Kong hospital authorities have made a U-turn to allow parents of Covid-positive children to accompany them in paediatric wards, regardless of their own Covid status, as the city’s “fifth wave” of the virus eases.

Many toddlers were hospitalised during the Omicron-fuelled outbreak, which peaked this month, government data showed. But until recent days, only parents who also tested positive were allowed to remain in the same ward as their children.

Up to 2,000 children under the age of 10 had been separated from their parents over the past five to six weeks after being admitted to hospital, according to a local charity that accused the government of “child abuse”.

The policy also caused outrage among parents and campaigners. “We have hardly seen any parent allowed to be admitted into hospital with their infected children,” Dr Lucy Lord, the executive chair of mental health charity Mind Hong Kong, told local media. “This is unacceptable. This is child abuse on any level.”

But on Tuesday the city’s Hospital Authority told the Guardian the policy had been reversed. “Even for parents or carers who are tested negative for Covid‐19, we will seek the agreement of the Centre for Health Protection, so that the public hospitals can also accommodate their request for accompanying the paediatric patient, subject to availability of isolation capacities,” it said.

The authority added that children in a stable condition could rest at home, and if parents or carers were also confirmed as having the virus and wished to take care of their children, the hospital would arrange for them to stay in the same ward.

Hong Kong-based foreign consulates including the US and Australia had raised concerns over the isolation policy. The US government on 2 March advised against travelling to Hong Kong, citing Covid restrictions, “including the risk of parents and children being separated”.

On Monday, the Hospital Authority defended its previous policy. Dr Sara Ho Yuen-ha, the chief manager for patient safety and risk management, said it “needed to strike a balance between [serving] the needs of the sick children admitted and arranging to have them accompanied”.

Ho blamed the controversial practice on the fifth wave and said it had spread very quickly and many sick children needed to be hospitalised. Local media reported that two children aged under three and six children under 12 had died after contracting Covid during theoutbreak.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong confirmed 7,596 new coronavirus cases – a fourth consecutive day of decline in numbers. But experts warned that figure was likely to increase in the coming weeks.

Prof David Hui Shu-cheong, the government’s pandemic adviser, said: “[The daily figure of] about 7,000 to 8,000 is still at a high level. What we are worried most about now is there will be the Ching Ming festival and Easter holidays [in April]. If there are more public gatherings, we are worried there will be a rebound [in infections].”