HONG KONG - Amid resumption of talks with Singapore over a much-delayed travel bubble, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has said that Singapore will not impose a requirement on travellers from Hong Kong to be vaccinated before their trip.
But Hong Kong will make it mandatory for people leaving the city for Singapore to be vaccinated, she added.
Mrs Lam was echoing statements made by Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau on March 29 when he announced that Hong Kong residents who take part in travel bubble arrangements would have to complete two doses of vaccines and wait at least 14 days after the second jab before they can go on such flights.
Even before the roll-out of the free and voluntary inoculation programme, officials in February said they were reviewing the benefits and incentives people could get in terms of travel and shorter quarantine period once they are vaccinated.
Speaking ahead of her weekly meeting with the Executive Council on Tuesday (April 13), Mrs Lam said: “The basis for discussion with Singapore is that people leaving Hong Kong and entering Singapore need to be vaccinated.
“We want to provide incentives to encourage Hong Kong citizens to get vaccinated.”
When asked about the timeline, Mrs Lam said she “expects an early indication of agreement between the two sides”.
Under the original agreement between Singapore and Hong Kong, passengers have to be tested negative for Covid-19 before they can board the direct flights.
Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung had previously said on Money FM 89.3 that bilateral travel corridors for vaccinated travellers from places with low- and moderate-infection rates could come in the later half of this year.
He added that the removal of quarantine measures and stay-home notice are key to reviving air travel.
Before that, in early March, Mr Ong told Parliament that there were no plans to require travellers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to enter Singapore.
Talks were restarted after the current wave of infections in Hong Kong was brought under control. The travel bubble was shelved at the last minute in late November, after coronavirus cases spiralled out of control in Hong Kong in the fourth wave of the pandemic. It was again delayed in December after infection numbers spiked in Hong Kong.
Over the past week, the territory has been recording two or three local infections daily. There were 13 new cases, of which three are local, on Tuesday. Hong Kong has more than 11,600 Covid-19 cases and 207 deaths in all.
Mrs Lam had on Monday outlined plans to ease social distancing rules in the city and cross-border measures for people who are vaccinated.
These include allowing up to 12 patrons to a table if the eatery staff and customers are fully vaccinated, as well as letting dine-in services end at 2am instead of the current 10pm.
Mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated visitors from low-risk areas such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand could be reduced further to seven days in total or lower.
Compulsory quarantine for visitors was on April 9 lowered to 14 days, with an additional seven-day self-monitoring period.
The earliest at which measures can be relaxed for those vaccinated will be after April 28, the last day of extended social distancing rules, which include mask-wearing and public gatherings of not more than four people.
The vaccination rate in the city of 7.5 million people remains sluggish with over 870,000 doses of the vaccines administered. The six-week old inoculation drive has been dented by concerns over adverse reactions and more than a dozen deaths linked to the Sinovac and Pfizer-BioNTech shots.
But Monday’s proposal to ease rules for those vaccinated led to a doubling of appointments at Hong Kong inoculation centres, Bloomberg reported.
The report added that the start of designated travel bubble flights would not plug the massive losses suffered by Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines, but would at least be a positive development.
Both airlines, without domestic markets to fall back on, have been severely hurt by international travel drying up during the pandemic.
Turning to Hong Kong politics, Mrs Lam on Tuesday morning said it is the right of voters, as stipulated under the city's mini-constitution or Basic Law, that they can choose to cast a blank ballot.
The issue surfaced a week ago after Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said that organising, promoting or appealing for voters to cast blank votes could amount to election manipulation and sabotage.
Mrs Lam added that "there will be an omnibus Bill being read the first time in Legco (Legislative Council) tomorrow (April 14)".
The development comes as the Hong Kong government tries to push through as soon as possible electoral reforms already approved by Beijing.