Update 14 May: The ATB now looks certain to pick up a launch delay, with Singapore moving into heightened COVID-19 protective measures for a month between mid-May and mid-June.
With the recent emergence of at least two COVID-19 clusters in Singapore, the government here opted to tighten social and work restrictions with a roll back from ‘Phase 3’ to ‘Phase 2’ rules in the city – limiting interactions, group sizes and some activities between 8th May and 30th May.
As part of the new measures, Education Minister Lawrence Wong also hinted at new precautions being a possibility for the upcoming Air Travel Bubble (ATB) between Singapore and Hong Kong, set to commence on 26th May.
However, even with several daily community cases in Singapore, including a small number of unlinked cases, plans seem to remain well on track for the bubble arrangement to go ahead as planned.
The ATB will launch “as scheduled”
This afternoon, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau told reporters everything remains on track for the ATB launch, with inaugural flights set to depart two weeks today, on 26th May.
“The numbers are well below the established threshold to trigger a pause in the bubble. We will closely monitor if the situation gets worse.
“The number of unrelated cases [in Singapore] has remained at around 1.6 and 1.8, which is still at a low level compared to the… circuit breaker mechanism previously established. We will proceed as scheduled.”
Similarly in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia on Monday, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan shed some light on the current government thinking at this side of the bubble.
When asked whether the ATB was still going ahead as planned on 26th May, Dr Balakrishnan said:
“As of now, the plan is yes, but we will have to watch how the situation evolves over the next few days.”
Despite the reassurances of course, most of us recall from the first launch plan for the Singapore – Hong Kong ATB that much can change in the space of just a few days, let alone the two weeks that still remain between now and the latest proposed kickoff.
A ‘fourth wave’ of COVID-19 infections in Hong Kong, which scuppered the ATB’s launch in November 2020, only became apparent in the days leading up to the inaugural flights.
If all goes ahead as planned, both Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines will operate up to one daily flight each on the route, specifically reserved for those who’ve remained in either city for two weeks and followed a rigorous testing process.
Additionally, the flights are not available to transit passengers.
Unlinked cases remain below the threshold
Since its initial inception, the ATB between the two cities has been developed with a ‘circuit breaker’ mechanism for temporary suspension, based on the moving average of unlinked COVID-19 cases in either location exceeding a predetermined threshold.
If the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local COVID-19 cases rises to more than five in either Singapore or Hong Kong, the ATB will then be suspended, after a two-day ‘grace’ period, for 14 days.
It can resume the following day, provided cases have dropped below a similar set of criteria.
Currently the average stands at 0.14 in Hong Kong and 1.86 (provisionally) in Singapore, as of 12th May 2021. Singapore’s provisional unlinked total is often revised downwards at the evening MOH update.
While we can’t predict the future, it’s easy to see that less than three weeks ago Hong Kong actually had a higher unlinked case average than Singapore is currently recording, with that situation brought quickly under control, so the same pattern could certainly be replicated here.
Let’s hope that’s the case, since it could of course go the other way too.
Travel bubbles will stop and start – “get used to it”
In an effort to perhaps forewarn those of us who hadn’t expected it anyway, officials in both Singapore and Hong Kong have recently been priming us to expect the future of these travel arrangements to be ‘stop-start’ in nature.
Here’s what Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had to say during his CNBC interview on Monday.
“You will notice that the arrangements that we have made with Hong Kong, and the other arrangements that we are discussing with other countries, will have these pre-set thresholds at which the level of opening will have to change, or even temporarily stop. So we will just have to get used to these oscillations.
“COVID-19 is endemic in humanity… it is permanent.
“We must anticipate oscillation over the next two years. As waves come, there will be necessity for social restrictions, tightening at borders; these measures will have to come and go accordingly in response to these successive waves. So we are just going to have to get used to it.“
Hong Kong’s Edward Lau was taking a similar stance in his statement to the press earlier today.
“Every time we do this, we see that in other places, such as when the tourism bubble in Australia and New Zealand is implemented, there will also be a suspension mechanism.
“I think this is a new normal. Everyone should accept [it].”
The Australia – New Zealand travel bubble referred to by Mr Yau, which was the first in the Asia-Pacific region and took a year from initial proposition to eventually get up and running, has already seen two partial suspensions after small COVID-19 outbreaks were reported in both Perth and Sydney.
Full details on the Singapore – Hong Kong ATB
Whether it goes ahead or not (and current signs are that it will proceed), we have a comprehensive article covering everything you need to know about the upcoming ATB, to help you decide if it’s worth the hassle and the risk.
This includes full details of the suspension mechanism and what might happen if the bubble bursts while you’re away from home.
It’s ‘full steam ahead’, for now at least, when it comes to launching the Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble on 26th May with officials in both Hong Kong and Singapore sticking to the “as scheduled” message, subject to careful monitoring of the COVID-19 situation in both cities.
The current focus is on Singapore, where recent clusters have led to a return to ‘Phase 2’ precautions, though it’s worth noting that the ATB was originally set to launch during ‘Phase 2’ back in November 2020, so this fact alone certainly isn’t a show-stopper.
With the Australia – New Zealand travel bubble now fully up and running, despite a few bumps in the road along the way, it would be great for Singapore and Hong Kong to follow suit and be able to proceed with the ATB plan on 26th May.
The bubble arrangement is set to act as a blueprint for further leisure travel opportunities over the months ahead, though officials are certainly priming us for ‘stop-start approvals’ to become the expected norm for the foreseeable future when it comes to overseas trips.
The “new normal”… as they say.
(Cover Photo: Shutterstock)