HONG KONG: A long-delayed travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore will finally allow quarantine-free trips starting on May 26, both governments revealed on Monday.
Travellers from Hong Kong will need to have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus two weeks before their date of departure for Singapore, though this will not be required for those going the other way.
An exemption to that requirement will be in place for those who are younger than 16, unsuitable for vaccination for medical reasons, or those using non-Hong Kong travel documents for departure. Anyone currently in Singapore and Hong Kong will be eligible to travel regardless of nationality.
Under the arrangement, there will be one daily flight in each direction carrying 200 passengers. The designated flights, which are not open to transit passengers, will be boosted to two per day from June 10 if the coronavirus situation remains stable.
Both sides have agreed the bubble will be suspended for two weeks if the daily average of untraceable Covid-19 cases in one week reaches more than five in either city.
Edward Yau Tang-wah, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said the administration and its Singaporean counterparts had kept the coronavirus under control and both sides had agreed to add health precautions when launching the plan.
“Taking into account the latest situation, for example, the emergence of a mutated strain and a longer incubation period, we see the need to build additional safeguards and are taking the opportunity to encourage Hong Kong residents to complete two doses of vaccination before they travel.”
Yau said the most important health-control element rested on screenings pre-departure and on-arrival tests for passengers.
“In the case of Hong Kong, we have made provisions for the entire community to be vaccinated so as to protect themselves. The purpose of asking Hong Kong residents to get vaccinated prior to joining the [travel bubble] scheme is to protect their own health,” he said, adding it would be up to the Singaporean government if it wanted to impose a similar mandate on its end of the bubble.
Hong Kongers can get tested at private clinics for HK$240 (US$31), while the screening price in Singapore is under S$200 (US$150), according to Yau.
In a separate press conference held in Singapore, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said Hong Kong had requested the travel bubble be started in a month’s time in order to get more residents vaccinated.
Apart from the inoculations for Hong Kongers, travellers on both sides are required to do a virus test 72 hours before their departure, while they must be screened again when they arrive at the airport. Designated lanes will be set up at the Hong Kong airport for the post-arrival tests.
Hong Kong travellers to Singapore must fill in and submit an arrival card and book a post-arrival virus test three days before arriving. After taking the test at the airport, travellers will have to go to their declared place of accommodation by private transport, taxis or hired cars, and stay there until receiving their negative test result. Singapore permanent residents may quarantine in their own homes.
Singapore travellers, meanwhile, will have to fill in an online health declaration form 48 hours before arrival in Hong Kong, and can only leave the airport and begin their itineraries after getting a negative test result.
Travellers also have to download the government’s LeaveHomeSafe mobile app and scan the QR codes displayed at premises during their stay.
Ong said Singapore had not imposed any criteria for arriving travellers to be fully vaccinated. He said the original plan last year was for all travellers to be eligible for quarantine-free travel with a partner city or region that was “safe, where the control measures are good, and then you can travel … with tests but no need for vaccination”.
Hong Kong met this criteria, Ong said, adding that the city’s requirement for all departing residents to be fully vaccinated was probably because “they wanted an extra incentive for people to get vaccinated.”
The launch of the highly anticipated scheme comes after the travel-corridor plan was put on ice on in the autumn amid a surge in Hong Kong cases. But the rate of infections has dropped dramatically of late, with 7.6 cases confirmed per day on average over the past week, although concerns remain over imported infections carrying the more virulent N501Y variant.
Singapore has in recent months seen between zero and two local cases daily, but last week reported that 17 migrant workers who had recovered from a previous bout of Covid-19 had tested positive. The infections were linked to a 35-year-old Bangladeshi man, who lived in a dormitory and tested positive last Monday despite being fully vaccinated.
The city state is now investigating if the 17 were reinfections or viral fragments, and has also banned non-residents from India amid an upsurge in coronavirus cases from that country.
In Hong Kong, social-distancing curbs have been eased and people can go to the gym and dine at a maximum of four people per table at restaurants, while the city has confirmed between one and 30 infections over the past seven-day period, most of which were imported. Through Sunday, the total infection tally stood at 11,736, with 209 related deaths.
To date, about 11% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents have received one vaccine shot, while 5.7% have got two doses since the city launched its inoculation drive in late February.
Singapore, with a population of 5.7 million, has one of the fastest vaccination rates in Asia-Pacific, having administered 2.2 million doses. The city state has logged 60,966 infections with 30 deaths. Both governments have used the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in their inoculation drive. Hong Kong has also employed Sinovac while Singapore has rolled out Moderna.
The travel bubble will bring a much-needed boost to both city’s battered tourism industries.
All but three of Hong Kong’s entry points have been closed for more than a year, and arrivals to the city plunged 94% in 2020. Visitor arrivals to Singapore plummeted 85.7% last year.
Opening travel between the two hubs will also cast a lifeline to Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines.
Both have been hammered by the near-total freeze on global travel due to their lack of domestic markets to rely on.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong will also expand the Return2HK scheme, allowing residents to come back from anywhere in mainland China from this Thursday. The programme originally applied only to those coming from Guangdong province and Macau.
Those taking part will have to book online prior to their return. Adults can book a slot for three other family members, including children aged under 18 and the elderly, at the same time. The booking system will open on Tuesday, allowing residents to schedule slots from April 29 to May 16.
Returnees need to undergo coronavirus screening any mainland-authorised institution within a three-day window before returning, and show their negative test results in paper format when they cross the border.
There is no exemption yet planned for those crossing from Hong Kong to the mainland.