HONG KONG: A planned travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore was scrapped on Saturday, a day before its launch, after the southern Chinese city announced a sudden spike in coronavirus cases.
The decision is both a blow to the two cities’ battered tourist industries but also for other countries that had been hoping the scheme might be a model to replicate during the pandemic.
Hong Kong and Singapore have both suffered comparatively mild outbreaks with strict social distancing and border measures imposed soon after the pandemic first emerged.
But with small populations and a heavy dependence on links to the outside world, they have been hard hit as the global economy collapsed.
Desperate to help their key tourism and aviation sectors, they came up with a plan that would allow limited, quarantine-free travel between the cities as long as visitors test negative for Covid-19. It was set to kick off on Sunday morning.
But on Saturday, Hong Kong announced the programme would have to be delayed for two weeks following a sudden rise in coronavirus infections.
“In light of the 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 told reporters.
After weeks of single-digit infections, Hong Kong health authorities have begun reporting a sudden uptick in cases in recent days.
On Saturday they recorded 36 local coronavirus cases out of a total of 45. Crucially, 13 were from unknown transmission sources, prompting fears the city has a new wave of out-of-control infections.
Both Hong Kong and Singapore agreed that seven straight days of five or more “unknown transmission” cases would be enough to halt the travel bubble.
But Saturday’s double-digit spike was enough for authorities in both cities to postpone their plan.
“This is a sober reminder that the Covid-19 virus is still with us, and even as we fight to regain our normal lives, the journey will be full of ups and downs,” Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung wrote on his Facebook page.
The travel bubble was to be the first in the world that is open to all residents of two countries and not just selected travellers. As such, it was being closely watched by other jurisdictions including Thailand.
Shukor Yusof, an analyst with the aviation consultancy Endau Analytics, said that travel bubbles are fraught with challenges.
“Although widely supported by aviation bodies, bilaterally agreed air corridors is not the answer to the crisis,” Shukor said.
“There is no solution until the vaccine is available to all. The more airlines swim against the Covid tide, and try to beat the odds, the worse it will become. Best to endure, stay put, refine the business model and conserve cash,” he added.
Neither Hong Kong nor Singapore have domestic air routes to fall back on. So flagship carriers Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have been hit especially hard.
Singapore is a major market for Hong Kong’s tourism industry with more than 450,000 arrivals from the city-state recorded in 2019, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
The planned travel bubble, which could still go ahead if infections drop, is strict.
A maximum of 200 residents from each city will be able to travel on one daily flight to the other, with only those who have been in Singapore and Hong Kong for two weeks and tested negative allowed to board.
Arriving passengers will have to test negative again, and all the health checks could add substantial extra cost to a trip.
Coronavirus tests in Hong Kong cost around HK$1,500 (US$190) at a government-approved laboratory or hospital, and in Singapore the price is around Sg$200 ($150).
Just hours before both sides decided to scrap the bubble plan for now, Singapore had said that passengers from Hong Kong would have to take a Covid test on arrival, in addition to one before departure.
Hong Kong added 45 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, the highest daily toll in three months, after authorities imposed new social restrictions as they braced for an expected new wave.
The territory reported 26 new infections on Friday, 21 of which were locally transmitted, with nine from an untraceable source. The government has also detected over 40 preliminary cases awaiting confirmation, a sign that Friday’s jump was not an anomaly.
The surge comes as other parts of Asia, including Japan and South Korea, also see alarming flareups as colder weather sets in.
“Hong Kong’s epidemic has shown rapid deterioration and experts have said the fourth wave is inevitable,” Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in a briefing. “We have done a series of measures to strengthen control, but we still see the situation turning bad.”
The city’s government will suspend classes for primary school levels 1 to 3 from Monday for two weeks, after shutting kindergartens and nurseries a week ago due to outbreaks of upper respiratory tract infection, and the risks of coronavirus resurgence. No students or school staff have tested positive for Covid-19 yet, said officials.
On Saturday, the government also announced new social-distancing measures that would ban live performances in catered premises such as clubs, pubs and nightclubs, and shut all party rooms. The rules take effect at midnight on Sunday.
Hong Kong will now make mass testing mandatory among certain groups including symptomatic people, elderly care-home staff and taxi drivers. It’s also considering measures such as lowering the number of people allowed to gather at local hotels during “staycation” trips. Chan urged all residents to stop “unnecessary” gatherings and wear masks at all times.
The government is hoping the flareup can be contained before reaching the level of a July outbreak that was Hong Kong’s worst ever. Then, restrictions like a ban on public gatherings of more than two people and the closing of restaurants between 6pm and 5am dealt a significant blow to the financial centre’s economy.