MONTREAL – A group of Universite de Montreal students quarantined in China over flu fears were likely the last to know the restrictions on travel had been lifted.
David Ownby, the university’s East Asian studies program director, says newspapers reported the quarantine had been lifted well before the information trickled down to students.
He says the information passed from provincial authorities to the Canadian embassy in Beijing, to the partner university in Changchun before finally reaching their teacher chaperon at the Jingyue Hotel where the group has been holed up since Saturday.
When Ownby spoke with the teacher early Wednesday, he had not yet told the 27 students as it wasn’t until about 8 p.m. local time that he even received conformation.
Originally, the university said 29 students were in quarantined in China. It was later revealed that two of the students had not yet arrived.
Ownby assumes it’ll be “beer and ping pong ’til the early hours.”
The students are expected to leave the hotel around 8:30 a.m. local time Thursday and head to North East University of Changchun where they will take language courses until mid-July.
Ownby said the decision to end the quarantine was made after the provincial health authority sent doctors into the hotel for the first time to examine the students.
Before that, the students were taking their own temperatures and recording the information, he said.
Health officials decided to include the time the students had spent travelling to China as part of their time in quarantine, Ownby said.
“They decided they would count the beginning of the period of concern to be their departure from Canada,” Ownby said.
Ownby speculated pressure from the Canadian government likely played a role.
On Tuesday, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing issued a “diplomatic note” to the Chinese Foreign Ministry asking for an explanation for why the students were placed under medical surveillance even though they were not at risk for the H1N1 flu strain.
Ottawa also expressed concern that consular officials were thwarted from providing full consular assistance to the students as they were only given limited access to the hotel.
Diplomats were reportedly allowed only a brief visit with the students before being ushered out.
In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed a diplomatic note had been sent to China asking for an explanation.
Cannon is to travel to China on Friday on a previously-arranged trip.
“I will have an opportunity then to raise the issue directly with the Chinese authorities when I meet with them on the weekend,” Cannon said.
Despite lifting the quarantine, China has said it would continue its strident checks on travellers from affected regions.
The decision to release the students was made following a suggestion by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Lin Ji, an official at the Jilin provincial health department.
“After knowing the health condition of the students, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested this morning that we release them early,” Lin said.
The World Health Organization’s flu chief said Tuesday the organization was asking some countries to justify their disease control measures.
“One of the things that we are doing with these countries is contacting them to ask them about the actions being taken and also about the public health justification for those actions,” Keiji Fukuda said, without naming specific countries.
The quarantined students in China have reportedly been treated well throughout the ordeal.
They’ve managed to continue their studies and have been provided with three meals a day and access to a garden.
Several other Canadian tourists remain quarantined in a Hong Kong hotel. None have shown symptoms.