SINGAPORE — More than four months after a Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble (ATB) was postponed indefinitely, the two cities have re-launched the much-anticipated scheme, with the first flights set to take off on 26 May.
In a media statement on Monday (26 April), Singapore's Transport Ministry said the ATB will commence "cautiously", with one flight a day in each direction, capped at 200 passengers on each flight for the first two weeks, and review the numbers thereafter.
MOT noted that the ATB had been deferred in December 2020 by both parties due to the worsening COVID-19 situation in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (SAR).
"Since then, the COVID-19 situation in Hong Kong has improved, with very few local unlinked COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks. Community cases in Singapore remained very low throughout the time," said the ministry.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), the ATB will allow individuals to travel between Singapore and Hong Kong without quarantining. There will also be no restrictions on the purpose of travel and no requirements for a controlled itinerary or sponsorship.
They must travel only on designated ATB flights, which are currently operated by Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. All travellers must undergo COVID-19 pre-departure and on-arrival Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests in lieu of quarantine or Stay-Home Notice (SHN). They must also adhere to the prevailing border control measures and public health requirements of both cities.
Travellers on the ATB must have remained in either Singapore or Hong Kong in the last 14 days prior to departure, and this must exclude any time spent in quarantine or SHN arising from their last return to either city from overseas. In addition, they must now download and install Hong Kong’s LeaveHomeSafe (LHS) app on their mobile devices prior to leaving Singapore for the SAR.
Suspension and resumption
Speaking to reporters on Monday (26 April), outgoing Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said in the event that the ATB is suspended, a "complicated, three-tiered formula" would have to be met before it can resume. "In short, easier to suspend, harder to resume," said Ong.
According to CAAS, the ATB will be suspended for at least 14 days if the seven-day moving average of the unlinked community cases in either Singapore or Hong Kong increases to above five. This will take effect after two days, including the day on which the criteria was met.
The ATB can resume on the next day when the following criteria have been met:
The seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local cases in Hong Kong and Singapore does not exceed five on the last day of the 14-day suspension period or any subsequent day, and;
Subsequently, there are three consecutive days where the daily number of unlinked local cases does not exceed three in both cities, and the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local cases on the last day of the three consecutive days does not exceed five in both places.
One month to launch
Ong explained that both sides are waiting a month before the ATB's launch in order to get the travel industry, as well as potential travellers, time to get ready. This is also to ensure that both cities have their respective control measures in place and that infection levels are maintained at a "very, very low level".
In addition, the one month period was at the request of the SAR, in order to get more Hong Kongers or Hong Kong residents vaccinated. The territory has imposed an additional requirement for outbound Hong Kong travellers to be vaccinated. This does not apply to Singaporeans travelling to Hong Kong, but they will have to take pre-departure and arrival COVID-19 tests.
In a statement, Hong Kong Tourism Board chair Dr YK Pang, welcomed the agreement. He said, “Relaunching the Air Travel Bubble with Singapore is the first step in Hong Kong’s resumption of international travel, and a milestone for preparing the city for gradually welcoming more visitors back. We expect that travellers at the early stage of the launch of the ATB are those who travel for family visits or other essential reasons, and leisure travellers will return successively.”
Asked how confident he was that the ATB would indeed launch on 26 May, Ong quipped, "Can I tell you on the 26th of May?"
The minister was asked whether it was a good time for the ATB to launch, given the emergence of new infection clusters in Singapore and that the recently launched Australia-New Zealand travel bubble has been partially suspended. He responded that such "stop-start situations" in travel are to be expected in the pandemic, even as Singapore continues to look for travel partners that are "very safe".
The minister also pointed to the "very robust surveillance system" in migrant worker dormitories, and the infection numbers in recent days, which offer hope that the recent dormitory cases would not extend into the community.
He added that while the ATB is no longer the first in the world, given the launch of the Taiwan-Palau travel bubble, the arrangement is still a unique one between two aviation and financial hubs. "So to get this bubble up successfully, I think will have significant signalling effect to the rest of the world."
Asked why the seven-day moving average of unlinked community cases, a key barometer for the maintenance of the ATB, does not include dormitory cases, Ong said this was due to their different infection profiles.
"Because dormitory residents are in the dormitory, and usually once we detect a case in a dorm, we will lock down the dorm. Whereas community unlinked cases are more severe, which means they're unlinked, you don't know where they got infected and they've been moving around the community. Someone in the community can circulate and the chances of transmission is higher."
He added, "In the community, you can't lock down Toa Payoh, you can't lock down Ang Mo Kio."
In the wake of a recent Cabinet reshuffle, Ong is switching portfolios to become Health Minister on 15 May, and will also co-chair the multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19. Asked by Yahoo News Singapore if he will continue to be closely involved in ATB arrangements, Ong affirmed this.
"We expect a broad-based economic recovery this year, but one sector that I think is still in the doldrums is aviation, and it's strategically very important to Singapore as an aviation hub. So the answer to that is yes."
The travel bubble was launched to much fanfare on 11 November 2020, touted as the first of its kind in the region, or even the world. However, just 10 days later, it was suspended for two weeks due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong.
It was later delayed indefinitely on 1 December "in view of the severity of the epidemic situation in Hong Kong with the number of local cases of unknown sources increasing rapidly," said the Hong Kong government.
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