S'pore, Hong Kong in 'close discussions' on air travel bubble as unlinked Covid-19 cases dip

The Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble had been suspended indefinitely since the eve of its planned launch on Nov 21, 2020. PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI, REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Singapore and Hong Kong are in "close discussions" on the suspended air travel bubble for leisure travel without quarantine, as the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong appears to be easing.

The much-anticipated arrangement between the two sides had been suspended indefinitely since Nov 21 last year, the eve of its planned launch, after a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong.

Both cities had earlier agreed that the arrangement would be suspended if the seven-day average of unlinked cases in either city exceeded five.

When the plan was suspended, Hong Kong's rolling seven-day average of unlinked cases was 3.86. It shot up to 16 by end-November and continued to remain above the stated threshold since then.

But earlier this week, the figure dipped below five for the first time in almost three months. It currently stands at 4.57.

As of Saturday (Feb 20), the city had a total of 10,848 Covid-19 cases and 197 deaths due to the virus.

In response to queries about the impact of the improving Covid-19 situation on the air travel bubble, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said on Saturday that talks are ongoing.

Mr Daniel Ng, director of air transport at CAAS, said: "Singapore and Hong Kong are in close discussions on the ATB (air travel bubble). We will announce more details when ready."

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said it would be safe to start the air travel bubble if the number of unlinked cases remains below five consistently for two to three weeks.

This is taking into account that the incubation period of the virus has been lengthened to almost 21 days, he said.

"As an added precaution, they should ask the individual be vaccinated. The incentive then should be no Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing will be done," Dr Leong added. "Vaccination of travellers can expedite the formation of travel bubbles in a safe manner."

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said last month that he would rather not set a target on when the air travel bubble can begin.

Under the original arrangement, people travelling between Singapore and Hong Kong would be able to avoid lengthy quarantine by taking multiple Covid-19 tests.

Both sides agreed to having one flight a day into each city and a quota of 200 travellers per flight.

There were no restrictions on the purpose of travel, and no need for a controlled itinerary. But travellers are required to meet eligibility criteria, such as staying in either city for 14 consecutive days prior to departure, and adhere to the prevailing border control measures and public health requirements of both cities.

Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie from Sobie Aviation said the start of the air travel bubble may not be straightforward, particularly with the increasingly conservative attitude of Hong Kong towards the Covid-19 virus.

He said one example of this was the authorities' recent 14-day quarantine requirement for pilots and cabin crew entering the financial hub for more than two hours.

In December, Hong Kong also extended compulsory quarantine for all visitors from outside China to 21 days, up from 14 days.

Mr Sobie added: "Both Singapore and Hong Kong will once again need to work to align their views and be equally willing and ready to start the air travel bubble."

But while Hong Kong had imposed stricter restrictions in the last few months, it relaxed social distancing rules this week, for the first time since November, to allow dine-in services till a later time, among other measures.

It will also start its mass vaccination drive next week.

Mr Aaron Wong, founder of frequent flier website MileLion who had booked a ticket on an air travel bubble flight last November, said he is hopeful that the travel bubble can begin soon.

But he is waiting to see whether the Chinese New Year period would have any impact on the number of community cases in both cities over the next two weeks.

Shoppers at a market in Hong Kong on Feb 11, ahead of the Chinese New Year. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Should both cities proceed with the travel bubble, Mr Wong is confident there will be strong demand for it.

"We are fast approaching the one-year mark (March 15) since the Ministry of Health issued a blanket advisory against all travel worldwide, which means one year without travel for most Singaporeans,'' he said.

"Singaporeans are a travel-loving bunch in general, and all that demand needs an outlet."

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