SINGAPORE - The air travel bubble (ATB) to allow for quarantine-free travel between Singapore and Hong Kong will be delayed again, after a spike in Covid-19 cases in Singapore.
Both cities had said the air travel bubble - which was due to take off on May 26 - would be suspended when the seven-day moving average of unlinked community cases in either Singapore or Hong Kong increases to more than five.
As at Monday, the seven-day moving average of unlinked community cases in Singapore had increased to six. There have also been dozens of other linked cases reported in the community in the past week.
The Ministry of Transport (MOT) said on Monday (May 17) that Transport Minister S. Iswaran had a meeting in the morning with Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau on the issue.
"Both sides remain strongly committed to launching the ATB safely," said MOT. "However, in the light of the recent increase in unlinked community cases, Singapore is unable to meet the criteria to start the Singapore-Hong Kong ATB."
Both sides have therefore agreed to defer the launch of the ATB to protect the health of travellers and the public in these two places, MOT added.
It said the two cities will monitor the public health situation and review the new launch date of the ATB towards the end of phase two (heightened alert) of Singapore's reopening.
MOT said airlines will contact affected passengers to offer help.
Travellers can still continue on their trips to Hong Kong on non-ATB flights. But this means that they will face more stringent health and border restrictions in both cities, such as a seven-day stay-home notice when they return to Singapore.
In a Facebook post, Mr Iswaran acknowledged that many have been looking to travel under the ATB for various reasons. "I seek your understanding as this is the unpredictable nature of the pandemic," he said.
A Hong Kong government spokesman said on Monday that both cities will also monitor the effectiveness of more stringent Covid-19 measures implemented in Singapore since Sunday. The measures, such as a ban on dining out, will stay in place till June 13.
"During this period, both sides will continue to maintain communication, exchange relevant data and statistics, and review developments closely before deciding on the way forward with the inaugural flights under the ATB," said the Hong Kong spokesman.
"A further announcement will be made on or before June 13."
The bubble was slated to take off on May 26, six months after its initial planned launch on Nov 22 last year. It was first deferred last year by both parties owing to the worsening Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong.
Former transport minister Ong Ye Kung, who is now health minister, had said last Friday that both cities are strongly committed to the bubble, but have to start it safely. They would also respect the resumption mechanisms that both sides had agreed on.
Mr Aaron Wong, 33, who had made bookings for both rounds of planned air travel bubble flights, said the suspension was disappointing but understandable given the worsening Covid-19 situation in Singapore.
The founder of frequent flier website MileLion said that even if the bubble had been launched as planned, Hong Kong tourists coming to Singapore would not have much to do owing to restrictions such as a cap on social gatherings and a ban on dining out.
Hong Kong's residents may also feel uneasy about an influx of Singapore visitors, he added.
"When the revised ATB launch date is announced, I will make bookings again, with the hope that third time's the charm," Mr Wong said.
"Of course, you take sensible precautions, such as ensuring all your flight/hotel bookings are fully refundable. It also helps if you go in with the mindset that actually travelling is a bonus."
The share price of national carrier Singapore Airlines, which was due to operate half of the ATB flights, rose 3.11 per cent to close at $4.64, despite the news of the suspension of the bubble.