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Singapore and Hong Kong call off travel bubble announcement

·4-min read
A passenger checks in at the departure hall counter of Changi International Airport terminal in Singapore on January 14, 2021. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
A passenger checks in at the departure hall counter of Changi International Airport terminal in Singapore on January 14, 2021. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

By Faris Mokhtar, Kyunghee Park and Felix Tam

(Bloomberg) —Singapore and Hong Kong called off an announcement planned for Thursday on an air-travel bubble, according to people familiar with the matter, the second time in five months the highly anticipated arrangement for quarantine-free travel between the two financial hubs has run into obstacles.

No reason was immediately provided on why the announcement — which Bloomberg had reported was expected as soon as Thursday — was postponed and a new date hasn’t been set, said the people, who asked not to be identified as they’re not authorised to speak publicly. The cancellation was initiated by the Singapore side, one of the people said.

Singapore and Hong Kong have been trying to revive their bubble plans after a previously scheduled November start was shelved due to a virus flareup in Hong Kong. A new start date was planned for May, people familiar have said, though that’s now uncertain. While it’s unclear what triggered Thursday’s postponement, it comes as Singapore faces new virus cases among its migrant worker community, which underpinned the city’s major outbreak last year.

Covid hasn’t hit the two Asian hubs as hard as many other places, at least in terms of numbers: Hong Kong has recorded 11,704 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, while Singapore has reported 30 deaths. But the compact nature of the cities means that outbreaks regarded as minor elsewhere have been enough to derail plans to open borders. Mutant virus strains and hesitancy among the public to get vaccinated have also added extra layers of caution.

Hong Kong has been trying to resume cross-border travel in a gradual and orderly manner with places where the epidemic is stable and economic and trade ties are strong, a government spokesperson said Thursday. Discussions between Hong Kong and Singapore are ongoing and an announcement will be made “in due course,” the spokesperson said.

Singapore’s Ministry of Transport said that “Singapore and Hong Kong have been in close consultations on the air travel bubble. We have not fixed a date to announce the resumption of the bubble, but will do so once we are ready, hopefully very soon.”

Travel corridors have faced teething problems elsewhere, too. A bubble between New Zealand and Australia opened Monday after months in the making. The following day, a worker at Auckland International Airport tested positive for the virus, despite being fully vaccinated. The travel bubble hasn’t been affected, however.

Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said earlier this month that he hopes an agreement on the air-travel bubble would be announced “soon,” echoing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s earlier comments.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Singapore Airlines Ltd. would operate the flights between the two cities. While the limited number of bubble trips would do little to plug their pandemic-related losses, any opening would be a positive step for the carriers as well as people who haven’t left either city for a year or more, dissuaded in part by strict quarantine requirements.

In an announcement Wednesday, Singapore eased quarantine rules for those traveling to Hong Kong. Travelers from Hong Kong will have to stay in home isolation for seven days upon arriving in Singapore, down from a previous rule of 14 days in a government-selected hotel.

There are now concerns that a reappearance of the virus in Singapore could upend the easing plans. The city, which saw a massive outbreak among its army of low-wage migrant workers last year, said Thursday that 11 workers at Westlite Woodlands dormitory had tested positive for Covid-19.

Among them, 10 had previously been infected and recovered, according to a government statement. The flareup raises fears that the virus is again circulating among the workers, who live in close conditions in accommodation segregated from the wider community. Their movements are highly restricted by the government, though the rest of the population has seen social and economic activity normalise after Singapore contained its outbreak last year.

(Adds comment from Singapore’s Ministry of Transport in 6th paragraph.)

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.