Singapore’s ambitious COVID strategy leaves Hong Kong hesitant on travel bubble resumption

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Singapore’s plan to transition to a new normal and open its borders to tourists by September could further delay a long-awaited travel bubble with Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a press briefing on Tuesday that Singapore remains the SAR’s “priority candidate” with which to resume international travel but expressed hesitation when asked when such an arrangement might get underway.

“We need to understand more about that new strategy and whether it will have any impact on the arrangements that we have devised,” Lam said. “The situation is very stable on both sides, so this is something that we will be working very closely on.”

Hong Kong and Singapore had originally planned to launch a travel bubble on 22 November 2020, with one charter flight carrying a maximum of 200 passengers to depart each day initially, rising to two flights per day from 7 December. The plan was postponed due to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Hong Kong, then again in May 2021 as cases rose in Singapore.

Case numbers have now declined to low single digits in both jurisdictions, however Singapore’s impressive vaccination program – the government is targeting to have two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated by 9 August – has seen it announce new plans to open its borders in September, with Australia, China, New Zealand and Taiwan flagged as being among the first to be welcomed. Authorities are also planning to cease daily COVID-19 case updates.

That contrasts sharply with Hong Kong, where only around 22% of the population is vaccinated.

“Now that Singapore also has a very high vaccination rate, another factor that we need to consider on top of what we have agreed previously is whether both sides should require vaccination as a condition for participating in the air travel bubble,” Lam said.

“On facilitating travel on a bilateral basis that is between Hong Kong and other places, I would say that Singapore is still our priority candidate for consideration.”

There are also hopes that a travel bubble arrangement between Hong Kong and Macau can get underway in the coming weeks after officials revealed plans for a “blue health code” system that would allow vaccinated arrivals from Hong Kong to enter Macau without having to enter hotel quarantine.

The Medical Director of Macau’s Conde de São Januário Hospital, Tai Wa Hou, said this week that more time was needed to finalize a start date due to uncertainty around a possible local case of COVID-19 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong officials have since classified that case, involving a cleaner at a designated quarantine hotel, as being linked to an imported case. As a result, Hong Kong has now reached 28 days without a locally acquired case of COVID-19.

Macau officials had previously outlined 28 days as the point at which a reopening of borders with Hong Kong could be considered.

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