S'pore studying HK's travel bubble proposal, which includes mandatory Covid-19 vaccination

Talks on the much-delayed Hong Kong-Singapore travel scheme have resumed, amid hopes that this is the right time as infections in the Chinese territory taper off.
Talks on the much-delayed Hong Kong-Singapore travel scheme have resumed, amid hopes that this is the right time as infections in the Chinese territory taper off.PHOTOS: REUTERS, ST FILE

HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government has proposed that passengers taking the Singapore-Hong Kong quarantine-free bubble flights be vaccinated as it resumes talks with the Lion City over the much-delayed travel bubble, with the territory's infections tapering.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said at a joint briefing on Monday (March 29) 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 those flights.

"We have put forward the proposal to the Singapore Government and we're waiting for a response, but I think it's important that we first get things right on our side - that is, before people here in Hong Kong travel, they must first be vaccinated. This is for their own protection," he said.

Mr Yau noted that the city's seven-day moving average for unknown infections has dropped to less than five - a criterion for discussions to resume between the two sides.

On Monday, Hong Kong recorded eight new infections, of which one was local and its source unknown. The rest were imported cases. They bring the total tally since the pandemic started to more than 11,400 and 205 deaths.

"If Hong Kong people are to travel and if we are to start any travel bubble arrangements with other places, then vaccination will be a requirement. I believe that will be the trend around the world in the long run," said Mr Yau.

While he did not provide a timeline for when the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble will restart, Mr Yau said Hong Kong is in talks with 16 jurisdictions on travel arrangements for those who are vaccinated.

Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said in response that Hong Kong has kept the pandemic under control and that "this is a very positive development".

"We have received a proposal from Hong Kong to reopen borders safely. We are studying it and will be responding to Hong Kong shortly."

The travel bubble with Singapore was suspended ahead of the first scheduled flight on Nov 22 as the pandemic in Hong Kong worsened, triggering the fourth wave of Covid-19 that lasted four months - the longest so far.

Mr Yau's suggestion comes on top of the initial agreement between Singapore and Hong Kong for passengers on the designated direct flights to be tested before departure and upon arrival in each city.

When asked about recognition of the different vaccines, Mr Yau said different jurisdictions will have "their own standards", but Hong Kong officials "will consult the health authorities in the respective areas and discuss the mutual regulation issue".

With Easter holidays due in three days (Good Friday is on April 2), Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan, who was at the briefing, said the government will proceed with caution.

From Thursday until April 14, public swimming pools and beaches will be reopened, while the capacity for cinemas and performance venues will be raised to 75 per cent from the previous 50 per cent.

The ban on religious gatherings will also be lifted and the health authorities say the number of participants at religious venues may be capped at 30 per cent.

Bars, pubs, nightclubs, mahjong parlours and bath houses will remain closed, while the cap on public gatherings remain at four.

"Now, if we ease measures slightly before the Easter holidays, there could be a resurgence of the epidemic. That's why we do not have the condition now to substantially relax the various social distancing measures and immigration control measures. We must be patient and keep up our efforts a little longer," said Professor Chan, who said the latest moves are "by no means a relaxation".

The ban on flights from the United Kingdom will soon be lifted, with the government arranging designated flights in late April to allow Hong Kongers in the UK to return home, she said. Those on such designated flights will serve the 21-day quarantine at hotels.

For people coming from low-risk areas, including Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, the mandatory hotel quarantine will be lowered to 14 days, although there is another seven days of "self-monitoring".

As for when the government will resume the use of Pfizer-BioNTech jabs, Prof Chan said officials are in close contact with the German firm and the mainland distributor Fosun Pharma. 

"Hopefully within the coming week, we are able to have a final report, and so hopefully we can resume the vaccination shortly," she said.

Officials urged people to get the jabs, noting that staff at venues such as schools, beauty parlours and eateries, where Covid-19 testing is required every 14 days, will no longer need to do so if they get vaccinated.