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Singapore-HK travel bubble has families on tenterhooks

Medical staff wait at a traffic light to walk across to Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore on April 30, 2021. (ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP)

As Singapore’s government assesses any potential change to a planned travel bubble with Hong Kong following a spike in local virus cases, families on both sides of the South China Sea are waiting and watching with bated breath – again.

Quarantine-free flights were originally meant to start last November, but the plan was postponed after an outbreak in Hong Kong. It was resurrected five months later and the first trips are scheduled for May 26. Relatives and friends are on the cusp of long-awaited reunions, but their hopes could still be dashed.

Selena Wu is one of many on tenterhooks. The 40-year-old, originally from Singapore, lives in Hong Kong and has seats on a June 1 bubble flight back to the city-state with her husband and three children. She plans to stay for six weeks, spending time with family.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong have suppressed local transmission to very low levels and faced pressure to maintain that success amid attempts to revive their travel-reliant economies

“It will be the first visit since February last year,” said Wu, who along with her husband is fully vaccinated. Her parents plan to take the kids to Singapore’s famous night safari, but Wu worries if they’ll be able to fly there at all. “It’s so sad. Every night, we’re praying that the travel bubble will still persist.”

The corridor linking two of Asia’s most important cities reflects the fragility of reopening efforts given the spread of new variants and vaccination in the region that lags the US and Europe. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have suppressed local transmission to very low levels and face pressure to maintain that success amid attempts to revive their travel-reliant economies.

Visitors from Hong Kong, if they do come, will experience a Singapore that’s recently tightened restrictions once again. A growing cluster linked to a large public hospital has triggered a three-week crackdown, including limiting social gatherings to no more than five people and restraining border movements to stem the spread of the new variant first identified in India.

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While barbecue pits, gyms and campsites are closed, restaurants are open and in most cases, busy. Patrons must however finish drinking by around 10 pm. Operating capacity for attractions like museums and public libraries has been scaled back to 50 percent, tour groups capped at 20 people, and the use of Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which must be scanned to enter everything from supermarkets, shops, malls and eateries, will be mandatory from May 17.

Singapore is working hard to contain the latest outbreak lest it threaten the World Economic Forum, which it is due to host in August, and the Shangri-La Dialogue, set to start on June 4. Government agencies have stepped up enforcement, penalizing businesses and individuals for breaching safety measures. An open house for the public to visit the president’s official residence next week has been canceled.

Airlines drop

A spokeswoman for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is organizing the Shangri-La event, said the body is “monitoring developments in Singapore, as well as the global COVID-19 situation. We continue to work in close partnership with the government of Singapore to ensure the highest levels of safety for participants.”

According to the terms of the agreement, the travel bubble will be closed for two weeks if the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local cases is more than five in either city. The number in Singapore stands at 1.43, well below that threshold. The Ministry of Health said it found only one case of locally-transmitted infection on Wednesday.

The Hong Kong government is watching the outbreak in Singapore, where the number of cases is “by and large” within the agreed range, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said late Tuesday.

Shares in Singapore Airlines Ltd closed down 3 percent Wednesday, their biggest loss since April 19, while Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd fell 1.8 percent.

Wu, whose parents were supposed to come to Hong Kong in November before the bubble was called off initially, is hoping this will be second time lucky.

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“If everyone cooperates and they’re aggressive with their quarantining and contract tracing, I think it’s possible to contain an outbreak within a few weeks because we’ve seen that in Hong Kong,” she said. “Hopefully it will be contained.”