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Will the HK-SG travel bubble burst once more?


SINGAPORE, 17 May 2021: There is a growing sense that the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble will burst once more ahead of its planned reintroduction on 26 May

Hesitancy is creeping into comments at both ends of the bubble, with the South China Morning Post quoting a top official warning that there’s a “high chance” the quarantine-free scheme will not be launched 26 May as Singapore once more battles a surge in new cases.

This is the second time the scheme faces postponement since it was briefly introduced in November last year. The latest joint announcement that the two countries were ready to relaunch came on 26 April. It promised travellers they would start to enjoy quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and Singapore effective 26 May. 

Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development, Edward Yau Tang-wah told SCMP last Friday he had been in touch with his Singaporean counterpart for updates on the country’s Covid-19 situation.

Singapore’s minister for transport, S. Iswaran, is expected to make a final decision this week on whether to go ahead or not. Bets are on another bubble postponement. It would leave hundreds of hopeful travellers facing the tedious process of securing ticket refunds from Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines. They could still travel under strict border control measures that require quarantine at both ends of the journey.

Hong Kong confirmed one imported Covid-19 case on Friday, marking a seventh straight day without a local, untraceable infection. Singapore now has 12 active clusters, with 136 domestic infections reported this month, compared with 55 in April and just nine in March.

The latest surge also spread to Changi airport, where a cluster of 59 infections has prompted authorities to restrict public access to the terminal until 27 May.

Last Friday, Singapore tightened social-distancing rules for four weeks until 13 June and, in its latest move, tightened measures on visits to libraries. The cap on social gatherings has been lowered from the previous level of eight to just five people until at least 30 May. High-risk venues such as gyms have closed, and companies should ensure that 50% of their staff work from home.

The two airlines designated to operate flights for the travel bubble – Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines said they are waiting for an update and would defer to its regulators on the travel bubble launch date.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s  Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s in an earlier interview with CNBC Asia, commented on the travel bubble: (They) “can grow or burst very quickly, and we need to just take that on board. So as of now, the plan is yes, but we will have to watch how the situation evolves over the next few days. You will notice that the arrangements that we have made with Hong Kong, and the other arrangements that we are discussing with other countries, will have these pre-set thresholds at which the level of opening will have to change or even temporarily stop. So we will have to get used to these oscillations.”

According to the standard operating procedures for the travel bubble, flights can be suspended when the seven-day moving average of Covid-19 unlinked cases exceeds five. If that happens, bubble travel stops for 14 days. In the two previous attempts to launch the travel bubble, unlinked cases forced authorities to put the entire project on ice. Over the next few days, the fate of the travel bubble will once more be determined by Singapore’ ability to ensure the unlinked cases steady below the critical five thresholds.

As of Saturday 15 May, Singapore’s Ministry of Health preliminarily confirmed 19 new cases of locally transmitted Covid-19 infections, of whom 17 are linked to previous cases, and two are currently unlinked.

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