Singapore, Hong Kong said to call off travel bubble announcement

Singapore and Hong Kong have been working on trying to revive their bubble plans.
Singapore and Hong Kong have been working on trying to revive their bubble plans.PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG, REUTERS

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore and Hong Kong called off an announcement planned for Thursday (April 22) on an air travel bubble between Asia's two major financial hubs, according to people familiar with the matter, the second time in five months the highly anticipated arrangement appears to have run into obstacles.

No reason was immediately provided on why the announcement - which Bloomberg had reported was expected as soon as Thursday - was postponed and a new date has not been set, said the people, who asked not to be identified as they are not authorised to speak publicly.

The cancellation was initiated by the Singapore side, said a source.

Singapore's Ministry of Transport did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Hong Kong has been trying to resume cross-border travel in a gradual and orderly manner with places where the epidemic is stable and economic and trade ties are strong, a government spokesperson said on Thursday.

Discussions between Hong Kong and Singapore are ongoing and an announcement will be made “in due course,” the spokesperson said.

Singapore and Hong Kong have been working on trying to revive their bubble plans after a previously scheduled November start was shelved due to a virus flare-up in Hong Kong.

The new start date for the bubble was planned for May, sources have said, though that is now uncertain.

While it is unclear what triggered the postponement of the announcement, it comes as Singapore faces new virus cases among its migrant worker community, which underpinned the city's major outbreak last year.

Bubble setbacks

Covid-19 has not hit the two Asian hubs as hard as many other places, at least in terms of numbers: Hong Kong has recorded 11,704 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, while Singapore has reported 30 deaths. 

But the compact nature of the cities means that outbreaks regarded as minor elsewhere have been enough to derail plans to open borders. Mutant virus strains and hesitancy among the public to get vaccinated have also added extra layers of caution.

Travel corridors have faced teething problems elsewhere too.

A bubble between New Zealand and Australia opened on Monday after months in the making. The following day, a worker at Auckland International Airport tested positive for the virus, despite being fully vaccinated. The travel bubble has not been affected, however.

Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said earlier this month that he hopes an agreement on the air travel bubble would be announced "soon", echoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's earlier comments.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines would operate the flights between the two cities.

While the limited number of bubble trips would do little to plug their pandemic-related losses, any opening would be a positive step for the carriers as well as people who have not left either city for a year or more, dissuaded in part by strict quarantine requirements.

In an announcement on Wednesday, Singapore eased quarantine rules for those travelling to Hong Kong. Travellers from Hong Kong will have to stay in home isolation for seven days upon arriving in Singapore, down from a previous rule of 14 days in a government-chosen hotel.

There are now concerns that a resurgence of the virus in Singapore could upend the easing plans. The city, which saw a massive outbreak among its army of low-wage migrant workers last year, said on Thursday that 11 more workers at Westlite Woodlands dormitory had tested positive for Covid-19.

Among them, 10 had previously been infected and recovered, said a government statement.

The flare-up raises fears that the virus is again circulating among the workers, who live in close conditions in accommodation segregated from the wider community.

Their movements are highly restricted by the Government, though the rest of the population has seen social and economic activity normalise after Singapore contained its outbreak last year.