Hong Kong and Singapore postponed the launch of quarantine-free flying until 2021 on Tuesday, dealing a heavy blow to hard-hit industries banking on travel bubbles to salvage a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said in a statement that the bubble arrangements would be reviewed in “late December”, with a view to reassessing the health conditions in Hong Kong, now struggling with a fourth wave of the coronavirus.
“The decision on a further deferral of the launch date of the ATB (air travel bubble) was taken in view of the severity of the epidemic situation in Hong Kong, with the number of local cases of unknown sources increasing rapidly,” the government statement said.
Paassengers who made bookings in December were advised to contact their airline and adjust their travel plans.
The much-hailed bubble between the two major Asian air transit hubs was scuppered on the eve of its inaugural flights, dealing a huge blow to airlines that had embraced the quarantine-free plan in the hope it would shore up a financially devastated sector that has seen travel all but collapse during the year-long coronavirus pandemic.
On November 21, officials from both cities declared a postponement of at least two weeks to give Hong Kong time to reassess its newest outbreak of Covid-19 cases.
Since then, Hong Kong confirmed it was battling a severe local outbreak, forcing authorities to tighten social-distancing guidelines to their harshest levels since July, meaning a delay to the travel bubble was inevitable.
Brendan Sobie, a Singapore-based analyst from Sobie Aviation, said the decision was “more symbolic than financial”, adding he hoped other low-risk countries would not shy away from moving forward with their own bubbles.
“If the Hong Kong-Singapore delay sets back the overall momentum towards resuming international air travel within the Asia-Pacific, then the setback will be significant,” Sobie said.
“I would encourage Singapore to go forward with other bubbles and even Hong Kong can move forward … with the idea that they are activated when this latest wave subsides.”
The Asia-Pacific region has been one of the toughest on air travel, with a majority of governments closing borders to non-residents.
The Hong Kong-Singapore travel corridor was planned to serve as a model for how other destinations with low rates of Covid-19 could restart commercial flights safely, with strict epidemic monitoring and rules on who was eligible to fly.
The bilateral deal included a circuit-breaker that would see the bubble suspended for two weeks if the daily average number of untraceable Covid-19 cases in a week reached more than five in either city. Travel could resume when that figure dropped below five again.
But since the suspension kicked in, the rate has only climbed, and as of November 30 stood at 16.1 cases of unknown origin per day.
The city’s infection tally now totals at 6,314, with 109 related deaths.
Singapore currently has 58,228 coronavirus cases in all, but its number of new infections has slowed dramatically since the outbreak peaked in April. In November, there were only 11 locally transmitted cases in the city state.
Andrew Li, CEO of Zouk Group, a Singapore-based nightlife and food and drinks company, was going to visit family in Hong Kong in January but the postponed bubble has put his plans up in the air. Li, however, said he understood the need to place public health first.
“I believe the postponement is warranted given the spike in cases in Hong Kong. The travel bubble is only feasible if numbers are equally low on both sides, and it’s more important that visitors and residents in Hong Kong and Singapore are safe,” he said.
Jeremy Smart, a creative director at a publishing firm, had planned to take advantage of the quarantine-free travel to work in Singapore for several weeks, but his plans to fly this Saturday were scrapped.
The 27-year-old said if he wanted to enter the city state, he would have to stick to a controlled itinerary to be granted a two-week stay without quarantine.
The world’s first international Covid-secure flights planned to launch on November 22, initially capped at one flight per day to each city and 200 passengers per plane. Both Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines were set to operate the special services.
Cathay Pacific, which declined to comment on today’s news, had previously said its first couple of weeks of flights were virtually sold out, citing “overwhelming” demand.