The announcement of the travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore was met with both celebration and skepticism by Singaporeans. The bubble was originally scheduled to start on Sunday, 22 November, and would allow quarantine-free travel between both cities. However, this was on the condition that untraced COVID-19 infections in either city would not exceed a rolling average of five.
On the eve of the Sunday that the travel bubble was set to begin, Hong Kong reported a rolling average of 5.29 cases, breaching the agreement that officials between both countries had reached. Initial reports said that the bubble would be suspended for two weeks, but according to Edward Yau, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, the two governments will make an announcement in early December as to when the flights will resume.
Hong Kong’s tally, before and after
Prior to the planned commencement of the travel bubble, Hong Kong’s moving average for COVID-19 cases was only 2.14, on Friday, 20 November. It was the number of cases on Saturday that would determine whether the country’s threshold of five would be crossed. The case number shooting up to 43 (36 local and including 13 untraceable) on Saturday turned the tides of the travel bubble, bringing Hong Kong’s total tally up to 5,560 cases and 108 deaths.
This is the fourth wave of infections that the country is dealing with. Mr Yau remarked that the agreement to delay plans for the bubble was mutually reached, to allow “for the Hong Kong (Covid-19) wave to settle a bit”. He also voiced that this would be a responsible action, which also adhered to the nature of the agreement.
According to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst James Teo, “the travel bubble will eventually be resumed, although whether it will be in two weeks’ time is hard to say as it depends on how quickly the virus situation in Hong Kong improves.”
Disappointment for travellers and families
The announcement of the travel bubble resulted in weeks’ worth of flights being fully booked by travellers in an instant, through airline Cathay Pacific. It’s no surprise, given that the travel bubble was a pandemic-first for the entire world. A bulk of passengers remain people who have been unable to gain physical access to their families, scattered across both Singapore and Hong Kong.
One such individual is Ms Tan Lay Hoon, whose husband is based in Hong Kong. She has not seen her husband since the implementation of quarantine measures and the circuit breaker beginning in February 2020. Another individual is Fairoza Mansor, a content marketing executive who was set to fly back to Hong Kong from Singapore without needing to undergo quarantine.
“Being in this limbo has made travel plans challenging especially since travel rules in Hong Kong and Singapore are constantly changing. Inevitable given the pandemic, of course, but still frustrating,” Ms Mansor told the Straits Times.
The travel route has been estimated by analysts to be worth $93 million to the Cathay Pacific airline, which had revealed strong performance in a closed-door investor meeting on the Friday before the travel bubble was postponed. This was amid a performance report timed with the year drawing to a close.
Ronald Lam Siu-por, Cathay’s executive director said, “The demand on our Singapore travel bubble flights is overwhelming.” He added, “In the next few weeks our flights are pretty much full. There is also a quota of 200 passengers per flight due to the limited capacity and high demand, our flights are pretty much sold out in the next few weeks.”
How many passengers would have flown?
According to Cathay Pacific’s travel bubble FAQ page, there was supposed to be one bubble flight each day on 24, 26 and 28 November, as well as 1 and 3 December. After which, the airline would step up to daily flights between 5 and 31 December. Based on the 200-passenger-per-flight quota, that’s at least 6,400 people who’d be making use of the special air route.
The Cathay Pacific airline had also released a string of articles and resources for travellers and passengers, helping them assess their suitability for the travel bubble. There were also accompanying articles about the sights and food that travellers could experience when in Hong Kong.
Since the postponement of the travel bubble was announced, the airline released an update on their website dated 21 November. The message reads to visit the Hong Kong Tourism Commission website for up-to-date information, and also to check the airline’s FAQs for more information on how travellers who had already booked tickets could obtain refunds.
Local media has reported that Cathay Pacific is offering refunds and rebooking options to passengers at no cost.
Matters uncertain, COVID-19 remains
In a Facebook post, Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung wrote that he understood the frustration of travellers but spoke in interest of public health.
“This is a sober reminder that the Covid-19 virus is still with us, and even as we fight to regain our normal lives, the journey will be full of ups and downs. But we will press on and look forward to when we can safely launch”, he said.
And if you’re an affected traveller, hang in there.