With COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong now back at levels seen when the Air Travel Bubble (ATB) agreement with Singapore was first established, and some 10 days after the unliked case average in the SAR fell below the previously agreed ‘safe’ threshold for the programme, there’s a renewed effort to get the scheme off the ground again.
As most of you will know, the bubble was rather unceremoniously burst on the eve of its launch back in November 2020, following a spike in Hong Kong’s COVID-19 cases.
Despite no technical exceedances at the time, the data was clearly pointing in an unattractive direction, and the decision to postpone the ATB turned out to be a good one – the spike ultimately led to a large and prolonged ‘fourth wave’ of infections.
The Hong Kong situation is back under control
Hong Kong has brought its fourth wave of COVID-19 infections well under control, and is now reporting single-digit daily case numbers and few (if any) new unlinked infections.
That’s important because for the ATB to operate, under the original framework, a seven-day rolling average of five daily unlinked cases was the maximum permitted in either city.
One of the ‘circuit breaker’ criteria for suspension of the ATB was that, following an exceedance of this limit, there would then be a two-week cooling-off period even after the average had dropped back below five, before the ATB could restart.
Currently the 7-day rolling average of daily unlinked COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong has remained below five for the 24th consecutive day, well in excess of the 14-day ‘cooling off period’.
While the wave levelled off stubbornly close to this limit in February, as you can see from the graph the last week has seen a significant tail off with the latest average of new unlinked cases sitting at 0.57, a figure not seen since early November 2020.
“We have resumed discussion with the Singaporean government on the travel bubble arrangement.”Edward Yau, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
Will vaccination be a new requirement?
On 19th March, Yiu Si-wing, a member of the tourism industry of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong SAR, already hinted in a local radio interview that Hong Kong was looking at adding vaccination as a requirement for the ATB with Singapore (translation from Traditional Chinese):
“Hong Kong and Singapore reached a consensus on the tourism bubble last year.
“On the existing basis, both parties must comply with conditions such as nucleic acid testing and installation of tracking programs. Now they can join the vaccination [passport]. I believe it will be more secure.”Yiu Si-wing, Hong Kong LegCo member (Tourism)
We didn’t report on it at the time, as it seemed to potentially be a ‘passing comment’, without any official government statements to support it.
In a press conference yesterday, however, Hong Kong officials gave the strongest signal yet that vaccination looks set to be a prerequisite for the ATB to finally start.
“For Singapore, there are two conditions on the bubble arrangement. One is testing… and there is now a vaccination programme… so under the travel bubble arrangement if Hong Kong people are to travel, vaccination will be a requirement.
“We have put forward the proposal to the Singapore Government and we are awaiting a response, but I think it’s important that we first get things right on our side – that is, before people here in Hong Kong travel, they must first be vaccinated. This is for their own protection.”Edward Yau, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
“Those who want to access the ATB should get vaccinated first.”Edward Yau, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
That’s the strongest indication yet that the “additional safeguards” for the ATB we referred to last month might not be additional testing (four tests are already required per round-trip), but vaccinated status.
When asked during the press briefing if there was any timetable for the ATB and whether those who do not take a vaccine are still able to take part under the original conditions, Yau seemed pretty clear that vaccination will be non-negotiable, at least for Hong Kong residents.
“We have only just come out of the fourth wave of the epidemic… so we must proceed with caution.
“[For] people taking part in the travel bubble arrangement, it means taking both doses of the vaccination and travelling only 14 days after the second dose. That means it will still be some time… we will make the announcement on the details so people can prepare early for resumption of travel after taking the vaccines.”Edward Yau, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
While no official announcements regarding the ATB’s renewed activation date have yet been made, bear in mind that should vaccination be a requirement for all travellers it will require “fully vaccinated” status, which is 14 days after your second dose (for two-dose vaccines currently being administered in both cities).
Here in Singapore that means a five to six-week wait from the first dose to having full protection, depending on which of the two vaccines you receive, as shown in the following examples.
Example dosage to full vaccination timeline
|1st dose||1st May 2021||1st May 2021|
|+ 21 days||+ 28 days|
|2nd dose||22nd May 2021||29th May 2021|
|+ 14 days||+ 14 days|
|Fully vaccinated||5th June 2021||12th June 2021|
It’s worth noting that Hong Kong’s statements regarding the vaccination requirement for ATB travel are addressed at its own residents, though it’s hard to see an agreement being reached on the basis of a different criteria at the Singapore end of the bubble.
The full testing schedule might remain
One thing vaccinated residents of Singapore or Hong Kong may assume given their increased protection from COVID-19 is that the testing requirements when using the ATB might be relaxed, assuming everyone using the scheme needs to have received their jabs beforehand.
Don’t get your hopes up here!
At the press conference yesterday, Edward Yau continued to refer to designated flights and testing both before departure and after arrival in each direction for the ATB, pointing to vaccinated status as an extra requirement.
“We will have this additional condition [vaccination], to have this added protection.”Edward Yau, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development
The ATB is already designed around a rigorous testing system, with a total of four negative COVID-19 results required for most passengers, plus a short self-isolation period for visitors or returnees in Singapore.
As a reminder, the ATB requires a total of four COVID-19 tests, with a total cost of up to S$770 per person for a return trip, frankly a huge price to pay if you’ve already been vaccinated, as outlined below.
Singapore – Hong Kong ATB
|Singapore pre-departure||S$154 – S$200|
|Hong Kong arrival||S$85|
|Hong Kong pre-departure*||S$41 – S$325|
|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.
It will be very interesting to see whether any of these testing requirements end up being relaxed if the ATB goes ahead only with vaccinated travellers eligible, since the cost is already quite prohibitive for many travellers before flights, transport and hotel accommodation are even accounted for.
How is vaccination progressing?
Slowly but surely is perhaps the best description.
As of 22nd March 2021, 1,071,908 vaccine doses have been administered to Singapore residents, with 300,611 having completed the full vaccination regimen (two doses).
In Hong Kong, where vaccination started later, 475,100 doses have been given as of 29th March 2021, with 24,600 residents having received two doses.
Both cities aim to have the majority of their populations vaccinated by the end of 2021, which would suggest around half of all adults should be vaccinated by mid-year.
That could make July 2021 a ‘politically-acceptable’ time to launch the ATB with vaccine requirement, given that most adults can partake and as the weeks progress, more and more will become eligible.
What is Singapore saying?
Singapore seemed to be caught a little off-guard by yesterday’s press conference in Hong Kong, not the first time its announcements on the ATB haven’t exactly ‘chimed’ with the northern partner, however the Transport Minister did make a statement later in the day, following press reports.
“We are very happy that Hong Kong has in recent weeks kept the pandemic under good control. This is a very positive development.
“We have received a proposal from Hong Kong to reopen borders safely. We are studying it and will be responding to Hong Kong shortly.”Ong Ye Kung, Singapore Transport Minister
Effectively it seems like Hong Kong is dead set on the vaccination concept, and to us it would be nonsensical to impose this on your own citizens while accepting they are sat alongside unvaccinated Singapore residents on the same plane, also using the same travel bubble.
What about children?
With none of the currently approved vaccines being administered to those under 16 years of age, one thorny issue for families will be whether their children can join them on the initial approved travel lanes or bubbles, where vaccination is specified as a requirement.
Already we’ve seen Singapore and Australia engage in discussions over a travel bubble reserved only for the vaccinated, and Hong Kong now looks set to impose the same restrictions.
Trials of existing vaccines for children are being undertaken, with a focus on safety and a measurable immune response. Unfortunately efficacy cannot be reliably measured because, thankfully, serious COVID-19 effects on children are too rare for any reasonably-sized trial to verify a difference.
How quickly this can come to fruition remains a different matter, plus most countries are prioritising vaccination of the general population by age to protect the most vulnerable first, meaning children will inevitably be at the end of the queue even if approval does come through.
The Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble was originally designed, quite simply, for testing to replace quarantine between two countries with low COVID-19 infection rates.
Ultimately though, we all have to accept that the proposal was drawn up at at a time none of us knew there would even be a COVID-19 vaccine that worked.
There are now at least eight approved vaccines being administered globally, including in both Hong Kong and Singapore, so it’s inherently sensible that these travel bubbles are initially restricted to individuals who’ve had the jab.
Two key sticking points remain:
- Most residents in both cities haven’t even had the opportunity to be vaccinated yet (though that will change in the months to come).
- Children under 16 years of age are not currently eligible for vaccination at all.
These factors may leave some disappointed, especially since many people, families with young children included, were just days (or even hours) away from jetting off on an overseas trip when the Singapore – Hong Kong ATB was suddenly aborted in November last year.
The rhetoric from Hong Kong seems very simple. You’ll need to be fully vaccinated to use the ATB, once it reappears on the radar. An exemption for Singapore residents wouldn’t just be unpopular with Hong Kong travellers – it would make no sense – so we are 99% certain this same imposition is what has been proposed to the government here.
Hong Kong has done a good job to manage and quash its fourth wave of infections, while progressively reopening the city recently, so let’s hope we can now move forward to a new ATB agreement.
Just don’t expect to use it until you’ve had a couple of jabs in your arm!
(Cover Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board)