Hong Kong scraps travel bubble with Singapore as Asia hit by wave of new Covid-19 clusters

Verity Bowman
·3-min read
A staff member wearing protective suit disinfects a public bath - China News Service 
A staff member wearing protective suit disinfects a public bath - China News Service

A bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore was scrapped just 24 hours before its launch after a coronavirus spike as alarm bells were raised across Asia amid a spike in Covid-19 clusters.

Hong Kong reported 43 new cases on Saturday - a large outbreak by the city’s standards. 

Japan saw record breaking cases for the third day running on Saturday, while China began testing three million people in the northern city of Tianjin and 4,015 others in a Shanghai hospital after new cases there.

Much of Asia has managed to avoid a second wave of the pandemic with aggressive test-and-quarantine campaigns and mask-wearing. Yet despite the comparatively comparatively mild outbreaks, nations have been hard hit as the global economy collapsed.

The decision to put the travel bubble on hold comes as a huge blow to both Hong Kong and Singapore - as well as other countries looking to bolster their economies with similar passages.

Hong Kong, once the most visited city in the world, faces a tourism bust. Visitor arrivals have been down 96 per cent each month since February, leaving many businesses on the brink of demise.

Singapore Airlines cabin crew - REUTERS
Singapore Airlines cabin crew - REUTERS

The planned bubble came as a last ditch effort to help both cities’ key tourism and aviation sectors. If visitors tested negative for Covid-19, quarantine-free travel would be allowed from Sunday morning.

But hopes were dashed after Hong Kong announced a two week delay to the scheme on Saturday.  

"In the light of recent surge of local cases we have decided, together with the Singapore government, to defer the air travel bubble's launch by two weeks," commerce secretary Edward Yau said.

Significantly a total of 13 of the city’s cases come from unknown transmission sources, limiting the effectiveness of contact tracing and triggering fears the outbreak could escalate.

Japan similarly raised alarm bells on Saturday as confirmed cases reached a record breaking 2,418.

The nation is set to suspend a domestic travel campaign in areas where coronavirus infections are especially high, marking a u-turn in the government's policy.

Pedestrians wearing protective masks cross a road in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan - Soichiro Koriyama 
Pedestrians wearing protective masks cross a road in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan - Soichiro Koriyama

Japan had resisted curtailing the domestic travel subsidy programme until now, towing a balancing act of revitalising its hard-hit economy while controlling the pandemic. It has never had a total lockdown.

Officials in South Korea meanwhile eased social-distancing measures to their lowest level in October, but now a resurgence of cases suggests misplaced optimism.

Figures released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency increased the total number of cases to 30,403, with 503 deaths.

Korean experts warn the country could be hit by more than 1,000 new infections a day within the week if further social distancing measures are not reintroduced rapidly.

"Covid-19 transmissions are occurring in large numbers simultaneously across the country, and in some regions, the pace of infections has already overwhelmed local capacities for contact tracing," the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases said.