An air travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong has been delayed as the city-state battles with a rising number of unlinked cases tied to the more aggressive and transmissible coronavirus strain known as B.1.617.
A further announcement should be made on or before June 13, the Hong Kong government said in a statement Monday. Singapore Minister for Transport S. Iswaran said that as the island nation is unable to meet the criteria to start the travel bubble, both sides have agreed to defer the launch. The bubble was due to start May 26.
Both governments remain committed to the arrangement, “with a view to resuming air travel between the two regional aviation hubs and international cities in a gradual and orderly manner under a set of stringent public health control protocols,” the Hong Kong government said in its statement.
Singapore’s government last week imposed lockdown-like restrictions for a month until June 13 amid a rise in untraceable virus infections. The biggest number of new cases are linked to a cluster at Changi Airport, which prompted the closure of two terminals and the Jewel shopping complex for two weeks.
The bubble, which would have permitted quarantine-free travel betwen the two cities, was to involve special flights on Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. Both airlines have been hurt particularly hard during the pandemic because neither has any domestic market upon which to rely. With international travel all but off limits, passenger numbers have plummeted, inflicting severe financial pain on the carriers.
Shares in Singapore Airlines closed up 3.1% on Monday while Cathay Pacific dipped 0.5%.
While it is disappointed by the delay, Cathay is “encouraged by the demand for two-way, all-purpose, quarantine-free air travel flight arrangements among our customers,” the airline said in a statement. Tickets on the initial flights between Singapore and Hong Kong were almost sold out in both directions.
Cathay separpately said it is introducing a new organizational structure for its Hong Kong International Airport team that will take effect from Sept. 1. The new structure will “create clearer roles and responsibilities, build more flexibility into our manpower deployment plans, as well as put a stronger focus on the frontline leadership team,” the airline said. The changes won’t involve any involuntary redundancies, it added.
Singapore Airlines said in a statement that it supports the decision to delay the bubble launch.
Of the 17 unlinked cases identified in Singapore on Sunday, six patients preliminarily tested positive for the B.1.617 strain, according to Ministry of Health data. Among them, two had already gotten their first vaccine dose. In all, Singapore reported 38 new cases of Covid-19 infection in the community on Sunday, the highest in more than a year. On Monday, another 21 cases were found with 11 that aren’t linked to any existing clusters.
For four weeks from May 16 to June 13, gathering sizes as well as household visitors will be cut to a maximum of two people from five, working from home will be the default, and food places can only do takeaways and deliveries. On Sunday, Singapore further announced it will stop most in-person school classes this week, with the education minister saying some of the variants appear to attack younger children.
The flareup is a major setback by Singapore standards considering the city-state is one of a handful of “Covid havens” that had previously nearly eliminated the pathogen domestically. These places are now struggling to find a path to re-open as their vaccination drives lag major Western economies.
The bubble delay comes as Hong Kong looks to reclassify Singapore as a high-risk destination, according to local Hong Kong media reports. That would mean unvaccinated arrivals to Hong Kong from Singapore may have to quarantine at designated hotels for 21 days as well as present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding their flights.
The quarantine-free air travel arrangement was initially set to start last November but was first delayed by rising cases in Hong Kong.
Under the agreement, if the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local cases is more than five in either Singapore and Hong Kong, the bubble will be suspended for two weeks. Currently, that number is hovering around 4.7.
Travelers with bookings on designated flights during the period have been advised to contact their airlines and adjust their itineraries.