With the recent emergence of COVID-19 clusters in Singapore, the largest being linked to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Changi Airport, we’ve already seen a tightening of 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.
There are now 12 clusters in the city and yesterday 24 community cases were recorded, four of which could not be linked.
Singapore has also today announced it is moving to “Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)” from Sunday 16th May through to Sunday 13th June, with gatherings reduced to two people and dine-in suspended at restaurants and hawker centres. Work from home will also become the default and the government is urging everyone to stay home as much as possible.
“High chance” the ATB will be delayed
SCMP is reporting that at a press briefing today, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said there was now a “high chance” the bubble’s launch date would have to be postponed, against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in Singapore.
The formal suspension mechanism for the ATB triggers when an average unlinked case total of more than five in either Singapore or Hong Kong is reached, based on a seven-day rolling average.
While that threshold has not (yet) been reached, rising community case numbers in Singapore, including a recent increase in unlinked infections looks set to prompt authorities to postpone the launch of the ATB from its latest proposed kickoff on 26th May 2021.
When the bubble’s launch was last postponed, the threshold had also not strictly been breached, though the unlinked case numbers were heading in a clear direction and had the arrangement gone ahead, a postponement would have kicked in on its second day of operation.
With Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures being brought in until at least mid-June, the ATB arrangement with Hong Kong visitors arriving here obviously makes little sense.
Update: Singapore Transport Minister
Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung has now said that the country will “critically review” the start date of the Hong Kong ATB, with a final decision slated for early next week.
“The assessment is: Given the rising cases in Singapore, it is very likely that Singapore will not be able to meet the resumption criteria.
“What we’ll do now is closely monitor the numbers next few days, critically review the start date and early next week, we will make a decision and make an announcement on the Singapore, Hong Kong air travel bubble.”
The ATB never seems to get a break
As most of our readers will know, this wouldn’t be the first postponement to the Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel bubble!
In November 2020, just 16 hours before the first flights were due to depart, the plan got called off due to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Hong Kong. Initially the bubble’s launch was postponed by two weeks, but this later became an indefinite delay as the city suffered a prolonged ‘fourth wave’ of infections.
The 26th May 2021 launch is the latest plan for the ATB, and it’s starting to look clear that now won’t happen either due to the latest COVID-19 situation in Singapore.
Ultimately though, no matter how many setbacks occur, Singapore remains committed to finding ways to gradually open up air travel “to ensure the long-term survival of Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines”, the Singapore Ministry of Transport said in a recent statement.
We can therefore remain confident that despite the numerous setbacks, the ATB will go ahead eventually, even though it almost certainly won’t manage to do so on 26th May.
The question of when that might be is likely to primarily hinge on how the COVID-19 situation evolves here in Singapore in the coming days and weeks, based on the effects of the latest heightened measures, though it looks like we can count on a postponement of at least a month.
Could vaccination become a requirement for Singapore residents?
There were a few rumours prior to the second proposed launch of the ATB that vaccination would become a requirement for travellers, though in the end this was only imposed for Hong Kong’s resident nationals.
Aside from now inevitably delaying the ATB’s launch again, Singapore could choose to match Hong Kong’s requirement for its citizens who wish to travel on the ATB to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, once the bubble eventually resurfaces.
Currently Singapore residents aged 45 and above can register for vaccination, however as of 10th May 2021 only around 1.3 million people had received both doses, all of whom would be considered “fully vaccinated” by 24th May.
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|
Once the ATB becomes possible again, which is unlikely until July in our view, it may not be such a ‘tough sell’ to add this requirement for Singapore residents too, since the vaccination rate will be approaching half the population by mid-year.
The Singapore – Hong Kong ATB is crucial for opening up leisure travel to and from Singapore, since it is also designed to act as a blueprint for potential future arrangements with countries like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Nonetheless, the arrangement never seems to get much luck, falling down at the final hurdle at least once and now, by the looks of it, for a second time.
With new “Phase 2+” precautionary measures in the city, this is clearly the wrong time for a launch, but we’re still confident the bubble will get going… eventually!