As Singapore tightens coronavirus curbs, families hope Hong Kong travel bubble will go ahead as planned

a group of people walking on a sidewalk: People pose for photos at the Merlion Park in Singapore. File photo: EPA-EFE People pose for photos at the Merlion Park in Singapore. File photo: EPA-EFE

Andrew Li, 38, is looking forward to June. His father, who lives in Hong Kong, is set to visit Singapore if quarantine-free travel between both air hubs begins on May 26 as planned.

It will herald a reunion for most of the Li family, who have remained either in Singapore or Hong Kong without seeing each other since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted last year.

Li, the CEO of Zouk Group, said his mother and brother are now planning a series of family dinners, but like hundreds of others eager to travel or await visitors, they are also closely watching the news - in case the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local cases rises above 5 in either city, triggering a pause in the bubble for two weeks. Currently, the number in Singapore is 1 and 0.14 in Hong Kong, well below that threshold.

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"I can't wait to do a cook-off with my dad as he's also the chef in the family," said Li, who has planned a menu with lobster, pasta and steak.

First though, Singapore residents will need to stomach a return to the social-distancing restrictions of last year for three weeks starting on Saturday.

These include limits on the size of group gatherings - a maximum of five instead of eight people - the closure of gyms and fitness centres, and a cap of 50 per cent of staff allowed in offices, down from 75 per cent. Couples due to wed in May now have to arrange for on-site testing for their guests, get guests to go for testing by themselves, or cut the list down to just 50 attendees.

Health authorities announced the rules - and the imposition of 21 days of hotel quarantine for most travellers except those from seven jurisdictions - on Tuesday as part of a bid to stem a recent flare-up in community infections.

Singapore's Covid-19 hospital cluster, reinfections - causes for concern?

The outbreak, linked to one of Singapore's largest public hospitals, upended a streak of under 40 local cases a month in the first quarter of the year. The announcement prompted a scramble - family meals for Mother's Day on Sunday had to be reconfigured to meet the new gathering rules, and fitness centres scrambled to pause packages or deliver stationary bikes so enthusiasts could continue spin classes at home.

There were grumblings on social media that the return to tighter restrictions until May 30 was demoralising for people who had followed social-distancing rules all this while and had signed up for vaccinations.

As of April 18, Singapore had administered about 2.2 million vaccine jabs, with close to 15 per cent of its population fully inoculated, higher than Hong Kong's 8 per cent but lower than Britain's 24 per cent and the 32.1 per cent seen in the US.

With Singapore recording only one local case on Wednesday and two on Thursday, Wang Liwei, 35, who works in the media industry, observed: "It is an overreaction. You're using a crane to crush a mosquito."

a man standing in front of a building: The city state has seen an outbreak at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Photo: EPA-EFE © Provided by South China Morning Post The city state has seen an outbreak at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Photo: EPA-EFE

The country's Malay-Muslim population, who make up about 15 per cent of Singapore's 3.5 million citizens, have also had to make some adjustments given that they are a few days away from the religious festival of Hari Raya Idul-Fitri, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Last year, Idul Fitri took place as Singapore was in the middle of an eight-week partial lockdown or circuit breaker, where visitation was not allowed unless one needed to help an elderly family member out with their daily needs, such as grocery shopping.

Housewife Zaiton Ismail, 61, said it was "definitely sad" to have Hari Raya festivities impacted by the pandemic two years in a row.

"I can't visit houses and catch up and gossip with my sisters and cousins. The atmosphere is also usually more upbeat, more fun. But it has been subdued these two years," she told This Week in Asia. Still, she was glad that five visitors are allowed so her children and grandchild can spend the day with her.

The Hari Raya festival will be disrupted for the second year in a row. File photo: Reuters © Provided by South China Morning Post The Hari Raya festival will be disrupted for the second year in a row. File photo: Reuters

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, the co-chair of Singapore's Covid-19 task force, said the government's reinstatement of stricter rules aimed to "snuff out (cases) early and reduce the likelihood of having to impose more drastic measures down the road".

"We certainly hope not to have to invoke another circuit breaker," Wong said.

The cluster at the Tan Tock Seng public hospital, identified on April 28, had grown to 40 - including vaccinated individuals - within a week. Alarmingly, sequencing of the virus for some in the cluster who had no travel history found the B.1.617.2 variant first discovered in India. This strain has been classified as a variant of interest by the World Health Organization and Singapore has said there was a possibility that it could be more transmissible and infectious.

In total, Singapore has 10 active clusters, with local infections creeping up from 28 cases a fortnight ago to 48 cases in the past week.

Singapore's new 21-day quarantine and a look at the rules in other countries

The city state is also seeing more community cases involving mutant Covid-19 strains, including three that are considered variants of concern because they are proven to be more dangerous than the original version of the virus, by being either more transmissible, deadly or able to resist vaccine protections.

As of May 3, these included eight local cases of the B.1.351 variant first discovered in South Africa, seven of the B.1.1.7 variant first found in Britain, three with the P1 variant first found in Brazil - all of which are variants of concern.

As for the variants of interest, Singapore has three local cases with the B.1.617.1 variant first found in India, and one with the B.1.525 variant also discovered in the UK. There were also seven with the B.1.617.2 variant first found in India.

a group of people standing on the floor: Singapore residents will return to social distancing restrictions of last year starting on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE © Provided by South China Morning Post Singapore residents will return to social distancing restrictions of last year starting on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE

October Sessions, a molecular genetics expert at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Policy, said the tighter restrictions were "justified given what is happening in the region". India has been battling a devastating surge in cases while Bhutan, Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam have also reported new increases in infections.

The hope was that the new measures could interrupt local transmissions from the 10 active clusters "then, hopefully, we can avoid going back into a full circuit breaker event", he said.

What to know about the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble

Alex Cook, the vice-dean for research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Policy, said the government took a quantitative approach when deciding what was allowed or not. This included analysing previous clusters and contact tracing to determine a tolerable "risk budget", he said.

Cook, who works on infectious disease modelling and statistics, was in favour of the new border control measures. In addition to a longer quarantine period, Singapore has barred non-residents from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from entering due to the surge in infections there.

The move "should cut the risk of spillover infections from a few per cent to near zero", he said.

Meanwhile, the continuous tweaking of measures will have to remain. Sessions said that until Singapore's population was vaccinated, "fine tuning the social distancing and border control measures are the best ways that Singapore can respond to new waves of the virus in neighbouring countries".

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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As Singapore tightens coronavirus curbs, families hope Hong Kong travel bubble will go ahead as planned