As we reported last month, discussions are once again well underway on arrangements and a fresh start date for the long-awaited Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble (ATB) proposal, set to launch quarantine-free travel between the two cities.
Yesterday Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam held a press conference to announce a relaxation of some social distancing measures for fully vaccinated Hong Kong residents, in which she also made several references to travel bubble arrangements.
Before we get into what was said about the Singapore – Hong Kong ATB though, let’s recap on what’s happened so far, given that it’s now six months since the proposal was first mooted.
The Singapore – Hong Kong ATB timeline
“We can further manage risks by setting a quota on the number of travellers per day and ensuring that everyone abides by COVID-19 test protocols”
The two governments will open the first leisure ‘travel bubble’ for residents in both cities, with COVID-19 testing replacing quarantine
Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines will operate 7 designated ‘travel bubble’ flights per week from 22 November, increasing to 14 per week in early December
16 hours before the first flight was due to depart, the plug is pulled on the ATB, as Hong Kong feared a new ‘fourth wave’ of COVID-19 infections
With unlinked COVID-19 cases still rising rapidly in Hong Kong, the two governments agree to defer the ATB “to beyond 2020”
Hong Kong and Singapore actively discuss the ATB again, but this time with unspecified fresh precautions in store
Hong Kong puts forward a proposal for the ATB to start with only vaccinated travellers
Once it gets going, the ATB will allow anyone who has been in Singapore or Hong Kong for at least 14 consecutive days to travel between the cities for any purpose, business or leisure.
When the specific ATB arrangements and flight schedules were first announced in November last year, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines were set to initially share a schedule of 7 weekly ‘bubble flights’, soon planned to increase to 14 per week, though each service was set to be capped at a maximum of 200 passengers.
How are the case numbers looking?
Very much under control in both cities, which are seeing only a small handful of unlinked cases each week, especially over the last three weeks in Hong Kong where the numbers have shown that the city’s ‘fourth wave’ is effectively over.
Unlinked case numbers are an important metric because for the ATB to operate, a seven-day rolling average of five daily unlinked cases is the maximum permitted in either city.
One of the ‘circuit breaker’ criteria for suspension of the ATB is that, following an exceedance of this limit, there will then be a two-week cooling-off period even after the average drops back below five, before the ATB can restart.
Currently the 7-day unlinked case average in Hong Kong is 0.57, and in Singapore is 0.43. The rolling average in Hong Kong has now been below the ATB threshold for 38 days.
The good news is that with unlinked COVID-19 cases in both Singapore and Hong Kong at near-zero levels for close to a month, there’s further progress towards starting the ATB.
At a press conference yesterday afternoon in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam suggested further details about the ATB would be available “very soon”, a good sign the two sides are now largely agreed on a strategy.
Outside the bubble arrangement, it was also announced that Hong Kong will now consider reducing the quarantine period for low-risk arrivals, such as those from Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, from 14 days to “7 days or less”, for those who are vaccinated.
The quarantine period from medium-risk countries, meanwhile, could be reduced from 21 days to 14 days, and the ban for arrivals from the United Kingdom should be relaxed in early May, though those passengers will still face a 21-day quarantine period.
While these additional changes don’t directly relate to quarantine-free travel bubble arrangements like the ATB with Singapore, they are generally a positive sign that increased vaccination will lead to increased travel relaxations going forward, something we’re all keen to see.
Will vaccination be required for the ATB?
Last month we reported on Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Lam’s comments at a press conference, that vaccination seemed to be the new “additional safeguard” for the ATB.
“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, 29 Mar 2021
The next day, Chief Executive Carrie Lam somewhat backtracked on the statement, suggesting it was up to the destination country to impose the requirement, and that Hong Kong would not enforce it.
“If the other side says that you have to make sure that travelers from Hong Kong coming to our place, like Singapore, have to be fully vaccinated, then we will have to tell the people, if you want to benefit from this air travel bubble, you have to be vaccinated. If they don’t have that requirement, then we will not make it mandatory.”Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, 30 Mar 2021
Yesterday’s press conference, however, seemed to sway back more towards Edward Yau’s original statement, with Carrie Lam suggesting that at least Hong Kong residents would need to be vaccinated first, before using the ATB.
While Hong Kong seems to be emphasising that a potential vaccination requirement is its own imposition, and not that of the Singapore government, it’s hard to see how the ATB can operate with two different criteria, depending on a traveller’s normal ‘resident city’.
Earlier today, in a separate news conference, Carrie Lam said that Singapore will not impose the requirement for ATB travellers from Hong Kong to have had the vaccine, even though Hong Kong will require them to have done so.
“Now we are proposing to the Singaporean Government that we would like our Hong Kong travellers to be fully vaccinated before they [use the] Air Travel Bubble… but they [Singapore] will not impose such a requirement on travellers from Hong Kong within this Air Travel Bubble.”Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, 13 Apr 2021
To us it would be nonsensical to impose this condition on your own citizens, while accepting they are sat alongside unvaccinated Singapore residents on the same plane, also using the same travel bubble.
Such a ‘two-tier’ policy would also require airlines to verify residency status for non-vaccinated travellers, since many Hong Kong passport holders live in Singapore and would not want to be denied boarding on their way back to Singapore, only because they haven’t had the vaccine.
In our view, this all points towards full vaccination being a new reciprocal requirement for Singapore – Hong Kong ATB users in both directions.
Who’s had the vaccine?
Here’s the next problem. If vaccination is a prerequisite for residents of both cities to use the ATB, any short-term launch date seems unlikely.
That’s because the vast majority of people haven’t even had one vaccine jab yet, let alone two.
As of 6th April 2021, 1,667,522 vaccine doses have been administered to Singapore residents, with 535,864 people having completed the full vaccination regimen (two doses).
In Hong Kong, where vaccination started later, 877,900 doses have been given as of 12th April 2021, with 280,500 residents having received two doses.
What could it mean for the ATB launch date?
Demand would be significantly curtailed by launching designated ‘bubble flights’ between Singapore and Hong Kong today, with vaccination as a requirement, given not only the number of eligible travellers but also the demographic, which remains skewed towards the elderly.
We would therefore expect a launch date perhaps in July 2021, so that a larger proportion of residents are eligible.
By then, Singapore’s target is to have administered around 4.5 million vaccine doses, which should mean close to 2 million residents (over a third of the population) would have received both shots.
Currently, outside priority groups, those aged 45 and above in Singapore can register to receive the vaccine. In Hong Kong, those aged 30 and above are eligible.
Progressively, both countries will allow those aged 16 and over to be vaccinated in due course, with Singapore planning to roll out vaccination appointments to under-45s from June.
It takes a while to be vaccinated
Here’s another problem. “Fully vaccinated” status happens only 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 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|
Both Hong Kong and Singapore are discussing a ‘vaccine passport’ concept, with the HealthHub and TraceTogether apps here already showing vaccination records and status.
For proof of vaccination, Singapore has announced it will recognise the IATA Travel Pass digital health certificates from 1st May 2021, though initially this will only support verified COVID-19 test results, with vaccination records set to be added at a later date.
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 a press conference last month, 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, 29 March 2021
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.
Once further details about the ATB’s new process are revealed, it will be very interesting to see whether any of these testing requirements are relaxed, assuming the arrangement goes ahead only with vaccinated travellers eligible.
The cost is already quite prohibitive for many travellers before flights, transport and hotel accommodation are even accounted for.
Children still can’t be vaccinated
None of the currently approved vaccines are approved for those under 16 years of age, so 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 looks set to impose the same restrictions for the ATB.
Trials of existing vaccines for children are being undertaken, though any approved rollout is unlikely until late 2021, given that most countries are prioritising vaccination of the general population by age to protect the most vulnerable first.
Pfizer recently applied for emergency use approval of its COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12-15, after Phase 3 trials showed it had 100% efficacy among the group, potentially opening up this age band for eligibility in both Singapore and Hong Kong later this year.
Now that Hong Kong’s ‘fourth wave’ of COVID-19 is under control and the city is gradually lifting restrictions on things like dining and bars, discussions on the ATB with Singapore are back at the forefront, and we should hear about the new arrangements “very soon”.
The vaccination requirement is still being regularly mentioned by officials in Hong Kong, not only as an added safety measure but also to urge higher take-up rates, by ‘dangling the carrot’ of quarantine-free overseas travel.
Once we have full details of the new proposal, hopefully including a launch date and flight schedules, we’ll be sure to let you know – so stay tuned.
(Cover Photo: Sorbis / Shutterstock)