A long-awaited Covid-19 travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore could be up by as early as mid-May, three sources have told the Post, kicking off a second attempt to revive quarantine-free tourism between the two major Asian financial hubs.
The exact launch date is still considered a “moving target”, according to those familiar with the discussions.
One of the sources said mid-May was the timeline authorities were working towards, but added it was still premature to disclose the new conditions.
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Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines will be the first two carriers to launch the bubble, as previously planned.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor earlier this week insisted city residents had to be vaccinated before flying to Singapore under the bubble, though there is no similar requirement made as yet by the other side.
The insistence on vaccinations could limit the number of people immediately eligible to fly, depending on requirements for inoculation. It could also serve as an incentive for those keen to travel outside Hong Kong.
“The requirement will protect Hong Kong residents from infection when travelling abroad,” a source said. “Therefore, Hongkongers who want to join the air travel bubble will need to be vaccinated now.”
As of Wednesday, just 4.2 per cent – 318,700 people – of the city’s population had received a second dose, with 8.4 per cent of residents having got their first jab.
However, the proportion of fully vaccinated people falls to just 0.6 per cent when taking into account the government’s definition of 14 days following the second dose. According to official data up to March 31, those who are fully vaccinated comprised 44,032 people who took the Sinovac vaccine, and one who got the BioNTech version.
Hong Kong will lower the age threshold allowing people aged 16 to 29 to get vaccinated, meaning all adult age groups citywide would be eligible to seek Covid-19 protection.
The first Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble, aborted at the eleventh hour, was agreed in principle by both governments on October 14 last year. The official announcement came on November 11, with the launch at short notice on the 22nd of the same month. But this was halted after a resurgence of community infections in Hong Kong.
Previously, the bubble would have allowed up to 200 people to travel in each direction daily on designated flights without undergoing quarantine. This capacity would be doubled after two weeks if the operation runs smoothly. Transit passengers were banned from the bubble flights.
A circuit-breaker was devised to stop the bubble. Last November, Hong Kong was on the cusp of a fourth wave of Covid-19 – sparked by a dance club cluster – with infection numbers breaching the bubble’s threshold of five untraceable cases across a seven-day running average in either city. The threshold was breached on November 23 and only dipped below the mark 84 days later on February 15 this year.
When the suspension kicked in, Hong Kong had recorded 5,560 Covid-19 cases with 108 related deaths. By Thursday, the infection tally stood at 11,618, with 209 deaths.
Covid-19 testing is expected to remain a condition for the bubble. This would also mean individuals in either city must have stayed there for two weeks before departure. Under initial conditions, both Singapore and Hong Kong would require a PCR test taken on departure, while travellers arriving in the latter city would also need to be screened again.
Singapore was a front-runner over Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam in forming a travel bubble with Hong Kong, tourism experts said earlier.
The city state, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are regarded as low-risk places by the Hong Kong government. Arrivals from these countries who are fully vaccinated currently need to go through a seven-day compulsory hotel quarantine. This isolation period is two weeks for similar arrivals who are not vaccinated.
Additional reporting by Denise Tsang
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