Hong Kong International Airport. Uncertainty surrounds plans to restart travel to Singapore. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong and Singapore have agreed in principle to form an “air travel bubble,” which will let people who have tested negative for coronavirus travel between the cities without being quarantined.

The agreement was reached between Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, and Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Transport Minister, in a videoconference on Wednesday.

Travelers would have to take a Covid test recognised in each place before they could be exempted from quarantine, Yau said on Thursday. 

There would be no restriction on the purpose of the travel or itineraries but there were conditions. For example, “bubble” passengers would be required to take a designated flight and no transit passengers would be allowed on it, he said.

The scheme could be adjusted or suspended at any time, depending on the epidemic situation in the two places, Yau said. The governments hoped the scheme could be launched within weeks.

“I am pleased that both sides have agreed on the key features to underpin the expeditious conclusion of the air travel bubble between two major international aviation hubs in the world,” Yau said. “This is a milestone in our efforts to resume normalcy while fighting against the long-drawn battle of Covid-19.”

Ong was quoted as saying in a press release issued by the Hong Kong government, “Both our cities have low incidence of Covid-19 cases and have put in place robust mechanisms to manage and control the virus. This has given us the confidence to mutually and progressively open our borders to each other.”

“It is a safe, careful, but significant step forward to revive air travel, and provide a model for future collaboration with other parts of the world.”

The breakthrough came after Singapore announced on Tuesday that no new Covid-19 case was recorded in dormitories for the first time in more than six months. The city-state, which has identified 54,485 patients in dormitories since March 29, said also on Wednesday that people coming from Hong Kong would be required to be quarantined at their apartments or hotels for seven days only, instead of being isolated in quarantine centers for 14 days. 

Read: Hong Kong urged to speed up travel bubbles plan

Singapore has already eased quarantine requirements for travelers from Macau, mainland China, Malaysia (except Sabah) and Taiwan, given that these places have recorded zero local infections for some time.  

Singapore is a good partner for Hong Kong to start resuming air travel, Cathy Hsu, chair professor at Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, told RTHK. They can trust each other in terms of the credibility of the tests and the governments’ will to control any potential issues, she said.

“Potential travellers will welcome this. You see fatigue being mentioned all the time now, even the experts. So I think the Hong Kong people will welcome the opportunity to travel,” Hsu added. 

Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said the travel bubble could be a good interim measure because border controls were still needed as the Covid-19 crisis dragged on.

The scheme should not pose any excessive coronavirus risks, given that the pandemic situations in both places were comparable.

“Both of us are at medium risk. Our control measures including our border control measures are relatively comparable. Under such premises, the travel bubble by itself may not pose excessive risks to either party at the current stage,” Leung said.

Leung suggested that the “bubble” travellers should be required to stay away from the Hong Kong hotels that have travelers undergoing quarantine.

Timothy Chui, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Association, said Hong Kong’s tourism sector was cheered up by the bubble scheme. Chui said he hoped that more countries would create similar arrangements with Hong Kong. 

Jeremy Tam, a Civic Party lawmaker, said if Hong Kong would soon welcome foreign tourists, the city should relax its social distancing rules and resume the Legislative Council elections, which had been postponed by a year to September 2021. 

The Center for Health Protection said Thursday that 12 new cases were reported, including eight imported cases, two that could be linked to previous cases and two local infections with unknown sources, within the 24 hours on Wednesday

A 73-year-old businessman, who lived in the Flamingo Garden, Clear Water Bay, was identified to be infected. During the incubation period, he had been to the Kowloon Cricket Club and dined with his wife and two friends in Zuma Hong Kong in The Landmark. More than 200 people who visited the cricket club were required to give samples for testing. 

Another patient with no known source was a 35-year-old member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He last performed on October 10 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. The orchestra’s performance was attended by Chief Executive  Carrie Lam last Friday.

On Wednesday, Lam appeared on the same stage with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shenzhen after she claimed that she had tested negative in more than one virus test. She was seated about 10 meters away from Xi. 

Carrie Lam (right) was seated far away from Xi Jinping (center) in a Shenzhen event on October 14, 2020. Photo: CCTV

Read: Quarantined Hong Kong orchestra had played for Lam

Read: Untraceable cases force HK social distancing rethink