Hong Kong’s commerce minister is not optimistic about resuming talks on the postponed travel bubble with Singapore, citing the surging Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, but he has offered a sliver of hope for eager travellers by pointing to vaccines.
In a wide-ranging interview, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah said the prospect of quarantine-free air travel agreements, while bleak in the near term, could be rescued if inoculation drives turned the tide against the coronavirus.
As Hong Kong’s fourth wave of infections erupted in late November and derailed the travel bubble with Singapore at the eleventh hour, Yau said the groundwork had been put in place between the two cities.
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“The outbreak is at its peak globally, it is not the right time,” he said. “Everyone has to find a solution, vaccines are one, but they have to be supported by tests.”
Yau spoke to the Post on December 22, with the city still mired in its latest battle with Covid-19 amid toughened social-distancing and border-control measures. Since the fourth wave hit on November 20, Hong Kong’s tally of cases had ballooned to more than 8,500 and over 130 related deaths, and on Christmas Eve, the government extended mandatory hotel quarantine requirements from 14 days to 21 days for all arrivals from outside China. Those from Taiwan, Macau and mainland China would continue with their 14-day home quarantine requirement.
The travel bubble with the city state was put on hold on November 21, just a day before the first flight was due to take off. It has since been pushed back to 2021.
Yau said Singapore was one of the earliest among 11 countries he had contacted to start such arrangements in early September. Others included Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, France, Switzerland and Germany.
“We have learned a lot from the arrangements we put into the Hong Kong-Singapore air travel bubble, which has the major ingredients for resumption, and which involves repeated tests before and upon arrival,” Yau said.
“All the built-in mechanisms are there, and when the situation allows, and we are happy, the Singapore government and many other governments will also be happy to proceed on this basis.”
Such arrangements are seen as a first step in resuming international travel and bypassing dreaded quarantine restrictions, which have killed the urge of many to fly.
On Boxing Day, Japan – one of Hongkongers’ favourite destinations – said it would close its borders to all foreign visitors from Monday until the end of January.
Yau said the right circumstances were needed for travel bubbles to commence, and the recent discovery of a mutated strain of the coronavirus in Britain, which prompted many countries to shut their doors to arrivals from the country, signalled the pandemic was still raging.
The British authorities had said the new strain was some 70 per cent more transmissible and already “out of control” there.
Since December 22, Hong Kong has banned all passenger flights from Britain into the city. Outbound flights are not prohibited, however.
“Every government faces this job of stopping imported cases,” Yau said. “We can’t take risks, and hence Hong Kong follows other jurisdictions in stopping visitors for the time being, hopefully this will be a short period of time for the people returning from the UK.
“Vaccines are definitely a major milestone. Without them, the whole world would still be on partial closure,” he said.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declared on December 23 that the city had finally secured 22.5 million doses of vaccines, enough for the entire population of 7.5 million. The government is also pursuing more supplies.
Yau said he believed the availability of vaccines would also help restore business confidence in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong has been hit in multiple ways – we had the social unrest, which has calmed down, we are still in the ongoing US-China trade war, so we will wait and see if the new US administration takes a different stance,” the minister said, referring to US president-elect Joe Biden, who will officially take the helm in January.
Yau warned that amid the challenges the city faced, the pandemic would also not disappear overnight, even with vaccines. “Hong Kong’s resilience is being tested, as it has been for the last two to three years.”
He also pointed out how the city bore the brunt of American sanctions after the enactment of the Beijing-imposed national security law on June 30.
The scarred economy of the city showed signs of healing, he argued, citing a narrowing year-on-year contraction in gross domestic product in the second and third quarters this year compared with earlier.
As of the third quarter of this year, the city has weathered an unprecedented decline in GDP for five quarters running. But the decline slowed in the third quarter, down just 3.5 per cent, compared to 9 per cent in the second quarter, and 9.1 per cent in the first.
Industries such as tourism, aviation, hotels, restaurants and bars, and retailers have been dealt a heavy blow, crippled by social-distancing rules and high unemployment.
The government has dished out more than HK$316 billion in relief measures to businesses and residents hit hard by the pandemic.
Yau cited a scheme in which the government was offering a 100 per cent guarantee for small and medium-sized enterprises to borrow up to HK$2 million to ease cash flow problems. He said the aid measure had already proved popular with companies, pointing to the approval of 24,000 applications, totalling HK$38 billion at present, and noting registration would open until April.
For future growth, Hong Kong is eyeing membership in the world’s biggest free-trade pact, the recently founded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which seeks to tear down trade barriers among 15 countries, including China. The city also has its sights on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“RCEP is a silver lining, a vote of confidence for Hong Kong and like-minded economies,” Yau said.
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