Hong Kong is considering opening a 'travel bubble' with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and eight other countries on the basis on Covid-19 testing at both ends of the journey.
Speaking at a Government press conference in Hong Kong this afternoon, commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah indicated that early discussions were already underway with each country to determine what testing systems could be put in place for arriving and departing passengers.
“We need to ensure that a coronavirus test – that is mutually recognised – can be carried out before travelling, and another verification is needed after arrival," the South China Morning Post reports Yau as saying.
"Our health authorities would then proceed to further discussion with those countries,” he added.
Candidates for Hong Kong's travel bubbles
Countries under consideration for the COVID-safe corridors are dotted around Asia, the Pacific and Europe where the pandemic is "under better control", Yau noted.
The complete list of Hong Kong's travel bubble candidates is: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand Vietnam, France, Germany and Switzerland; bilateral talks are already underway with Japan and Thailand.
“These are places with which we have made initial contact, but whether travel bubbles can be established... would depend on a host of factors, including the epidemic situation and its containment in respective places," Yau elaborated.
“Of course the timetable will be a matter of bilateral agreement between Hong Kong and partnering countries. It all depends on how ready and comfortable both parties are with the situation."
However, Yau stressed "there will be no compromise on any sort of risk." Should the city's health authorities "at the very last moment" voice reservations on opening the bubble, "I think we would of course err on the safe side."
The news was accompanied by a relaxation of social distancing rules following a continued drop in COVID-19 cases. The South China Morning Post reports that the city listed only six new Covid-19 cases today, marking the lowest number of daily infections for more than two months, since five cases were recorded on July 3.
While held out as an early hope for restarting travel and tourism, travel bubbles have proven elusive to establish and prone to the unexpected spikes, surges and, in the worst case, second waves of the pandemic.
The 'trans-Tasman bubble' between Australia and New Zealand, first flagged in May, has suffered setbacks after outbreaks in Victoria and then Auckland.
First vaccines due early 2021?
The Australian government has committed $1.7 billion to backing two vaccines with the intent to offer free injections to all Australians from early 2021, pending successful trials.
An estimated 3.8 million doses of the promising Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine, now in broad 'phase 3' trials, would be available the first two months of 2021 for vulnerable Australians and front-line healthcare workers.
The deal also covers another vaccine under development by the University of Queensland, although this remains in early ‘phase 1’ clinical trials and, pending approval, is not expected to be ready until mid-2021.
Around 84 million doses of both coronavirus vaccines would be produced across 2021, with most manufacturing done at Melbourne’s CSL.
The high production quantity is partly due to the need for two injections of either vaccine: an initial dose would be followed by a booster dose within weeks.
Around 30 million doses would also be distributed among many of Australia’s Pacific island neighbours and some South-East Asian countries.
Access to vaccine shots would allow Australia's borders to reopen, although passports may need to be accompanied by a vaccination certificate, along with passenger testing both on departure and arrival.
“To fully open the international border without any quarantining or any restrictions probably will require a vaccine to be able to adequately protect vulnerable people in the community and if we get enough vaccine to develop sufficient herd immunity,” Department of Health secretary Professor Brendan Murphy has previously remarked.