S’pore, Hong Kong in ‘close discussions’ on air travel bubble as unlinked Covid-19 cases dip, Transport News & Top Stories

SINGAPORE – Singapore and Hong Kong are in “close discussions” on the suspended air travel bubble for leisure travel without quarantine, as the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong appears to be easing. 

The much-anticipated arrangement between the two sides had been suspended indefinitely since Nov 21 last year, the eve of its planned launch, after a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong.

Both cities had earlier agreed that the arrangement would be suspended if the seven-day average of unlinked cases in either city exceeded five. 

When the plan was suspended, Hong Kong’s rolling seven-day average of unlinked cases was 3.86. It shot up to 16 by end-November and continued to remain above the stated threshold since then. 

But earlier this week, the figure dipped below five for the first time in almost three months. It currently stands at 4.57.

As of Friday (Feb 19), the city had a total of 10,834 Covid-19 cases and  197 deaths due to the virus. 

In response to queries about the impact of the improving Covid-19 situation on the air travel bubble, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said on Saturday that talks are ongoing. 

Mr Daniel Ng, director of air transport at CAAS, said: “Singapore and Hong Kong are in close discussions on the ATB (air travel bubble). We will announce more details when ready.”

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said it would be safe to start the air travel bubble if the number of unlinked cases remain below five consistently for two to three weeks. 

This is taking into account that the incubation period of the virus has been lengthened to almost 21 days, he said. 

“As an added precaution, they should ask the individual be vaccinated. The incentive then should be no Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing will be done,” Dr Leong added. “Vaccination of travellers can expedite the formation of travel bubbles in a safe manner.” 

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung had said last month that he would rather not set a target on when the air travel bubble can begin. 

Under the original arrangement, people travelling between Singapore and Hong Kong would be able to avoid lengthy quarantine by taking multiple Covid-19 tests. 

Both sides agreed to having one flight a day into each city and a quota of 200 travellers per flight.

There were no restrictions on the purpose of travel, and no need for a controlled itinerary. But travellers are required to meet eligibility criteria, such as staying in either city for 14 consecutive days prior to departure, and adhere to the prevailing border control measures and public health requirements of both cities.

Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie from Sobie Aviation said the start of the air travel bubble is unlikely to be straightforward, particularly with the increasingly conservative attitude of Hong Kong towards the Covid-19 virus. 

He said one example of this was the authorities’ recent 14-day quarantine requirement for pilots and cabin crew entering the financial hub for more than two hours. 

In December, Hong Kong had also extended compulsory quarantine for all visitors from outside China to 21 days, up from 14 days.