Ever since Hong Kong’s 7-day average of unlinked community cases fell below the ATB threshold of five in February, attention has turned once again to the prospect of resuming (or rather, starting, seeing as how it never even got off the ground) the ATB with Singapore.
While I’m confident it’ll happen sometime this year, it may be a while before the majority of Singaporeans can take advantage of it. That’s because the Hong Kong authorities have indicated that vaccinations will be mandatory for Hong Kong residents traveling to Singapore, which almost certainly means a similar requirement the other way round.
Hong Kong’s COVID-19 situation has improved
Before we even talk about leisure travel, the most important thing is that Hong Kong’s COVID-19 situation has improved significantly. The territory saw a fourth wave that coincided with the proposed start of the ATB with Singapore, and after a tough couple of months, things look brighter now.
7 day moving average of unknown source cases (ATB): 0.57📉 pic.twitter.com/Z9ZJ1UNxUT
— Aaron is Lot No. 210102 💉 🇭🇰 (@tripperhead) March 29, 2021
As of yesterday, the 7-day average of unlinked community cases was 0.57, well below the five required for the ATB to resume. In fact, the last time the 7-day average exceeded five was 5 March, so we’ve now gone 24 consecutive days below the threshold.
It’s clear the Hong Kong authorities aren’t taking this for granted, however, hence the talk about vaccinations as a requirement for the ATB to resume. Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said as much during a press conference yesterday:
“So, under the travel bubble arrangement, if Hong Kong people are to travel, and if we are to start any travel bubble arrangements with other places, then vaccination will be a requirement.
“This is for our own protection. I believe that will be the trend around the world in the long run.”
His comments were addressed to Hong Kong residents, but surely there can’t be an asymmetry in requirements. If Hong Kong residents must be vaccinated before coming to Singapore, the same requirement will no doubt apply in reverse.
The original idea behind the ATB was that rigorous testing would replace the need for vaccinations and quarantine, but then again, vaccines weren’t even on the agenda back in October when the ATB was first mooted. In that sense, the Hong Kong ATB could be potentially no different from any of the other possible travel arrangements (Phuket, Bintan/Batam, Australia) that have been discussed recently, where vaccinations are the golden ticket.
How soon can the general population in Singapore be vaccinated?
So what does this mean for us in Singapore? Well, assuming you’re not one of the priority groups to get the vaccine, then the official timeline for general population vaccination is still “from April”, with the hope that everyone who wants a vaccine can get one by Q3.
But there’s still a further lag time involved, thanks to the two-dose regime and the need to wait 14 days to be considered fully vaccinated:
- Pfizer: Dose 1 → 21 days → Dose 2 → 14 days→ Fully vaccinated
- Moderna: Dose 1 → 28 days → Dose 2 → 14 days→ Fully vaccinated
Realistically speaking, there’ll be more than a month’s wait after your first dose before you can start making travel plans.
Then there’s the vexing question of children (don’t tell my wife I said that). Children under the age of 16 are currently not approved for vaccination in Singapore, pending the results of clinical trials on their immune response (which should arrive by early Summer). Should the ATB resume before then, it’s likely that children won’t be part of it.
No timeline has been provided for when the ATB will resume, but Singapore is currently studying a proposal from the Hong Kong side and will respond “shortly”, according to Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung.
Testing may still be required
If you think that vaccination will mean the end of swabbing, think again.
During yesterday’s press conference, vaccinations were positioned as an extra requirement, on top of separate, designated bubble flights, and testing on both sides. This raises the possibility that a vaccinated ATB traveler may still have to do up to four tests, adding at least ~S$440 in costs per person.
|Pre-departure in Singapore
|Post-arrival in Hong Kong
|Pre-departure in Hong Kong*
|Post-arrival in Singapore
|*This test is not required if your return flight from Hong Kong is within 72 hours of your second test
While the price of COVID-19 PCR testing has fallen (from S$200 when the bubble was first announced to around S$150 now), the cumulative cost could still be prohibitive for families- but as I mentioned in the previous section, it’s a moot point if children can’t get vaccinated anyway.
Presumably the airlines and hospitality industry will be lobbying to get testing requirements waived for vaccinated travelers, but the jury is still out on whether transmission by vaccinated individuals is possible. We’ll presumably know more about that in the weeks and months to come.
The Singapore – Hong Kong ATB could well be resuming soon, but if vaccinations are indeed made mandatory on both sides, there may still be a wait ahead for most Singaporeans. I fully expect that travel will be dangled as a carrot to encourage vaccination take-up anyway (as well it should), so there’s no surprises here.
There’s been some good news with Singapore’s vaccination program, thanks to supplies arriving ahead of schedule. Hopefully this trend continues, allowing general population vaccinations to begin soon.