Carolina Pimenta and her partner are now waiting to be released from a tuberculosis hospital
A couple who walked out of an isolation hotel in the Netherlands have accused Dutch authorities of treating them in conditions worse than prison.
Carolina Pimenta tested positive for Covid-19 after landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on a flight from South Africa on Friday. She was arrested by military police on Sunday night on a plane about to take off for Spain.
So what went wrong for the couple, who have now been moved into forced isolation at a tuberculosis hospital in the north of the country?
A Dutch ban on flights linked to the discovery of the Omicron variant came into force while 624 passengers were airborne, flying to Amsterdam from South Africa. Sixty-one of those travellers tested positive for Covid-19, and further sequencing has found at least 14 of them are carrying the new strain.
It has since emerged that the new variant was present in the Netherlands even earlier than thought, in samples taken on 19 and 23 November.
For Andrés Sanz and his girlfriend the holiday trip turned sour on their return to Europe
Carolina, a Portuguese bio-chemical researcher who turns 28 in a few days, was among the 61 who tested positive, while her Spanish partner Andrés Sanz was negative. She had already had a negative PCR test before the flight.
They wanted to stay together so both were transferred into quarantine at the Ramada Hotel, a 10-minute drive from the terminal. But Carolina was convinced she had returned a false-positive so she asked local health authority staff for another test.
He said that the staff of the local health authority, on duty in a room near the hotel reception, had suggested her partner borrow a bike and cycle to the supermarket to buy a lateral flow antigen test. As a close contact of a person who recently tested positive he was supposed to be isolating too.
The couple allege they showed the negative results to Dutch police and local health team on site, insisting they were told, “If I were you I would go.” They then caught a taxi back to the airport and used negative PCR tests they took before boarding their flight from South Africa to get on a plane to Spain.
North Holland police spokesman Willem Gijtenbeek told the BBC that until that specific point they had had no jurisdiction to hold or detain anyone for breaking quarantine. “However, when the couple left the hotel, the head of Kennermerland security area took legal measures because of the threat to public health and ordered their mandatory isolation,” he explained.
The local Kennemerland health authority denied the couple had been given permission to leave the hotel. The problem, a spokesperson said, was that quarantine was voluntary but the couple still had a responsibility to remain in isolation.
When the passengers arrived from South Africa they were held for several hours for Covid tests
After the couple left the hotel, the local mayor of Haarlemmermeer, Marianne Schuurmans, arranged for the couple to be held under an emergency order, and that changed the status of their quarantine to enforced.
Military police promptly boarded the plane and arrested Carolina.
“It’s shameful as a Dutch person to see how they have been treated,” Bart Maes, the couple’s lawyer, told the BBC.
“[The authorities] want to show how powerful they are but that’s not how you deal with people in a civilised country.”
The Netherlands imposed an extended partial lockdown at the weekend and is one of several European countries struggling to contain record numbers of coronavirus infections. Faced with a shortage of intensive care beds, the government has imposed a 17:00 closure of bars, restaurants and most shops.
But Mr Maes, who has also campaigned against the Dutch Corona vaccine passport, believes everyone involved in the couple’s case should be ashamed. “It’s bureaucracy all over, no-one knows what anyone else is doing, everyone is blaming everyone else.”
He is not aware of any criminal charges against them and is now seeking compensation for the way their case has been handled.
Mr Sanz has not tested positive. Other than the positive test on arrival, Carolina Pimenta has taken two PCR tests and two antigen tests, all of which returned negative.
Their lawyer believes there are no grounds for their continued detention, because “they pose no threat to security or risk of spreading infectious diseases”. The local heath authority said they were required to remain in quarantine for five days following Carolina’s positive PCR test at Schiphol on Friday.
For the moment, the couple are in a tuberculosis hospital in the northern town of Haren.
“Last night the sewage overflowed in our bathroom. Now they tell us I have to wait and do another PCR test tomorrow,” complained Ms Pimenta. “This is worse than a prison.”
“It’s like they are waiting until I get sick to prove they are right. We went on a dream holiday in Africa and now we are living a nightmare. We are watching the world say we are criminals with a story that is just a lie. We feel alone and abandoned.”
Their lawyer says he is hoping to take them to the airport later on Tuesday.
To him it’s absurd that, for someone suspected of being a super-spreader, the researcher is left to mix in a room with hundreds of passengers and then moved all over the country, meeting consular staff and lawyers.
“If they had Omicron then we really would be in trouble.”