Hong Kong dentist Alan Lam's cruise trip on board the Diamond Princess has been anything but smooth-sailing, even down to the last minute when his long-anticipated flight home after 17 days of being quarantined on the ship became a 12-hour odyssey.
Lam and his wife were among more than 300 Hongkongers on the coronavirus-hit cruise liner, which has been docked in Japan since February 4.
As infection cases surged on board, and countries scrambled to evacuate their citizens who had not contracted Covid-19, Lam was over the moon when he found out he was to be on the first of six buses ferrying passengers to the airport at 2.45pm local time on Friday.
But in a cruel twist of fate, his coach was the last to arrive at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, where Lam and his fellow passengers faced a further delay getting off, on top of his flight that did not depart until 10pm, four hours late.
"We got to the airport at about 3.30pm. We waited and waited but were not told to get off. My heart sank because nobody knew or could tell us what the hold-up was all about," a frustrated Lam said. "Suddenly, Hong Kong Director of Immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai came on board and read out two names."
Lam said the pair called out by Tsang left the bus and had their luggage taken away. They then had a long and intense discussion with the official in front of the bus. The mix-up in logistics on the part of Japanese authorities caused a three-hour delay before other passengers could alight from the vehicle.
Lam later learned the two passengers were suspected to be close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 patients on the cruise, even though they had tested negative for the virus.
"I became quite worried as they were seated near me on the bus and were coughing quite heavily behind their masks," Lam said.
He was among 84 evacuees in the second government-arranged airlift out of Japan, landing in the city at about 1.30am on Saturday, Hong Kong time.
Eighteen others were however barred from the flight, after another mix-up in which they were thought to have had contacts with infected people. This group paid for their own way home, landing in Hong Kong at about 4.45am despite offers from Japanese authorities to put them up in a hotel overnight for free and wait for a potential third chartered flight out.
A total of 364 Hong Kong residents were originally on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, of whom 66 contracted the virus and were sent to hospitals in Japan.
Young Wo-sang and his wife were among passengers such as Lam on the second chartered flight. Once on board, Hong Kong health officials gave a briefing to the evacuees.
Young, a local IT security specialist, said they were given bottled water and a packaged drink, and reminded of personal hygiene practices, such as on the use of hand sanitisers and masks.
They were not given any food, and were told to avoid using the toilets too often.
"We were spaced out on the flight, with no one sitting directly in front of or behind me and my wife, or on our immediate right or left. The lights were soon turned off, and most of us went to sleep due to exhaustion," he said.
Upon landing, the passengers were screened for temperature, and transported to Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan, a newly completed public estate that has been converted into a quarantine site.
All passengers from the cruise, whether they followed chartered flights, were required to undergo another 14 days of quarantine when they returned, city officials had earlier declared.
There were basic facilities in the flat, but it was not exactly home sweet home, Young said.
He added: "There is a living room with a double bed, a kitchen and toilet, but the pipe in my toilet was leaking and wet my floor. I tried to call and text the hotline for help but no one answered. There was a hot dog, two boiled eggs and some dim sum for breakfast for the two of us.
"I am still glad and grateful we got back to Hong Kong."
Dentist Alan Lam was similarly relieved, and thought the quarantine flat was comparable to a three- or four-star hotel. "The pillows, mattress and blankets are all brand new. And the government is quite thoughtful and gave us a fan, heater, and some installed blinds so we can adjust to the temperature there.
"Most important of all, I feel safer back home rather than being quarantined with so many possible patients on the ship."
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