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Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble ‘extra safeguards’ in store

"Additional safeguards" flagged in the latest drive to get the troubled Singapore - Hong Kong ATB up and running, as average cases exceed the bubble threshold again.

Things have gone quiet regarding the Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble (ATB) over the last few weeks. The arrangement was aborted on the eve of its launch back in November 2020, following a spike in COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong, which ultimately led to a large ‘fourth wave’ of infections.

A key ‘circuit breaker’ measure for the ATB when it was first announced was that the bubble would be suspended if the 7-day average of unlinked COVID-19 cases in either city exceeded 5, a threshold crossed in Hong Kong just one day after the bubble would have started , had it not been (sensibly) postponed.

Despite hope that the arrangement might be able to get started in December, and then in the New Year, the city’s ‘fourth wave’ of infections turned out to be prolonged and the unlinked case average exceeded 5 for a total of 85 days, finally dropping below the threshold again on 14th February 2021.

Unfortunately this wave now seems determined to sit almost exactly at the ATB limit, and has since exceeded the threshold on 17th February and again today (21st February).

(click to enlarge)

This has the effect of ‘resetting the clock’ each time it happens, since a new 14-day period of ATB suspension then takes effect.

Here’s how the supposed “end” of the fourth wave looks in more detail, with a flatlining of the average around the 5 mark.

(click to enlarge)

It’s as though the virus almost knows what it takes for the ATB to start and is simply teasing us now!

There would have to be only a single unlinked case tomorrow (22nd February) for the average to drop below 5 again, which seems unlikely given that the city just recorded its highest case total in the last 10 days (20 total cases, 6 unlinked).

Additional safeguards

Yesterday the South China Morning Post confirmed with officials that both sides are actively discussing the Air Travel Bubble once again, following the generally declining case numbers in Hong Kong over recent weeks.

A government source told SCMP that “additional safeguards” are also being discussed, suggesting some tightening of the (already onerous) requirements for travellers using the ATB under its current structure.

“The old [conditions] still apply. But of course, both sides are discussing additional safeguards too”

Government source to SCMP

It’s not clear what these extra measures might involve, since travel on the ATB will already involve four separate COVID-19 tests for most passengers, plus a short self-isolation period for visitors or returnees in Singapore.

Singapore – Hong Kong ATB
COVID-19 Testing

Test Cost
Singapore pre-departure S$154 – S$200
Hong Kong arrival S$85
Hong Kong pre-departure* S$41 – S$325
Singapore arrival S$160
Total S$440 – S$770

* Prices range from a community testing centre through to a private clinic, with other options in between at around the S$100 mark. Test not required if returning within 72 hours of arrival test, or for children under 12.

This is already a significant cost, totalling at least S$1,760 for a family of four, in addition to flight and hotel expenses.

Aside from testing requirements, other key features of the ATB for those who’ve forgotten are:

  • Travel can be for any purpose (business or leisure).
  • Capped at 200 passengers per day in each direction, increasing to 400 after two weeks.
  • Designated ‘bubble’ flights operated by Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
  • Open to any Singapore or Hong Kong resident, except those in Singapore on Work Permits or S Passes employed in the construction, marine shipyard, or process sectors.
  • Other Singapore Long Term Pass holders need to apply for re-entry approval.

When can it start?

Now that the unlinked case average has exceeded the limit, for the second time this week, the earliest the ATB could technically start based on the case average criteria (assuming it drops tomorrow and there are no further breaches) is 8th March 2021, after the 14-day cooling-off period has elapsed.

In reality though, the numbers show no signs of abating yet and whatever happens, authorities in both cities will want to wait longer than that, to be confident that cases are in certain decline.

They will also be keen to ensure that Chinese New Year gatherings have not had an adverse impact on the case numbers in both cities, which won’t fully reflect in the data for another week or two.

A large second spike in the ‘fourth wave’ was seen in Hong Kong around two to four weeks after the Christmas / New Year period, a trend also seen in other countries like the USA and the United Kingdom, as families and friends gathered perhaps not strictly in line with the rules!

Additionally, some lead time for bookings will be expected (11 days notice was provided prior to the initial proposed launch date), in order for airlines to arrange specific bubble flights and fill their planes.

Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were initially scheduled to operate designated Air Travel Bubble flights, using Airbus A350s

There remains no target date for the ATB’s launch, with Singapore’s regulatory director of air transport saying “we will announce more details when ready”.

Will vaccines help?

The Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble was designed for testing to replace quarantine at a time none of us even knew there would even be a COVID-19 vaccine that worked, with Pfizer’s initial positive results coming through around the same time the full ATB process and flight schedule was first revealed.

Even though three months have passed since then, at the time of writing only around 110,000 Singapore residents (less than 2%) had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while in Hong Kong the inoculation campaign is only set to begin next week.

Full vaccinations in Singapore and Hong Kong probably won’t hit the 50%+ mark until mid-2021

Given that it will be well into 2021 before a significant proportion of either population is fully vaccinated, we don’t foresee any change in the travel bubble criteria for those travellers at this stage, though if the travel bubble does get going it would be nice to see some relaxation of the testing requirements for vaccinated travellers in due course.

Summary

Hong Kong’s COVID-19 cases are hovering almost exactly where we don’t want them, with the average swinging just below and just above the crucial threshold of 5 unlinked cases for the last week or so.

Assuming (and certainly hoping) this doesn’t turn into a post-CNY spike and that case numbers will show signs of settling below the ATB operation limit, talks between authorities in both cities are returning to the possibility of working towards a new launch date for the arrangement.

Will we ever get to Hong Kong on the ATB? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Despite a rigorous testing arrangement already in place, with no fewer than four negative COVID-19 tests required for most travellers using the ATB, there’s now suggestion of “additional safeguards” being imposed.

It will be very interesting to learn what these turn out to be, since the process is already fairly costly and complex.

Nonetheless, given that demand for overseas travel is probably even greater now than it was in November 2020, with Singapore’s borders effectively closed for close to a year, even an extra test probably won’t be enough to deter a large number of people from the prospect of an international getaway.

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