Bubbles, bubbles everywhere but are they strong enough to support any serious reciprocal travel arrangements? Like most bubbles they are fragile and tend to pop with little warning

20 October, 2020

It used to be that you search for the word 'bubble' and you'd come up with information about soap bubbles, glass bubbles, water bubbles and even the London Science Museum's special bubble recipe. But as with so many things during COVID-19 days, the word has taken on a whole new meaning with bubble now referring to support groups, how households can mix and what countries can link up and how.

As we all know, a bubble is a fragile thing and can pop at any moment, much to the delight or dismay of young children. You can take time to make a large bubble but push it too far and suddenly you are covered in soapy water.

The same is true for a number of countries that have been trying to set up travel bubbles or corridors to encourage travel between two destinations to help the travel and tourism industry, not to mention the economy. There has been much bubble blowing, but most have already burst.

The problem is that countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand which have the virus largely under control are loathe to welcome visitors from other countries where the virus is still circulating.

Singapore, whose economy relies on air links and with no domestic travel, is suffering with passenger volumes down to 1.5% of pre-Covid levels. The country would dearly love to set up travel bubbles with low risk Vietnam, parts of Australia and New Zealand but negotiating terms of any bubble is a very fragile business with many dissolving before any decent bubble has been formed.

New Zealand and Vietnam haven't recorded any Covid cases for weeks whereas Singapore is recording around nine cases a day which means countries are not keen to open up their borders to anyone from Singapore.

In an attempt to circumvent the issue, Singapore has tried to create half bubbles, if such things exist, by unilaterally waiving the 14 day quarantine period for anyone from these countries although visitors need to take a PCR test on arrival. So far no reciprocal agreements have been reached and it's not clear how many people have taken up the offer, apart from residents returning home.

The recent trans-Tasman bubble between New Zealand and Australia's states of New South Wales and Northern Territory which allows New Zealanders to travel without quarantine to Australia was much lauded. But the catch is that they still have to undergo a 14 day quarantine on returning to New Zealand and there is no reciprocal agreement. The bubble was much hyped but days after it came into force and Qantas is already slashing the number of flights it was planning as passenger numbers are poor. Airlines are reporting the majority of those travelling are Australians returning home so booking one way tickets only.

Hong Kong has been talking about travel bubbles for a while now but so far none have been created. Negotiations are always fraught with difficulties because not only are there different infection rates but countries have to agree to swap 14 day quarantines for PCR tests, which then opens up the question of which test do you trust enough to accept. So far no agreements have been reached which means few bubbles have been created.

A bubble has been floated for the North Atlantic with airlines on both sides keen to make it happen. But governments are again loathe to agree to drop the 14 day quarantine period in favour of PCR tests so the bubble remains deflated.

There have been successful bubbles created that remain in place. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a travel bubble between the three Baltic countries that works for travel as well as trade. Anyone from outside of the three still need to quarantine.

Denmark and Norway have a bubble going, as do Austria and Germany and China and South Korea but the list is small. The UK is allowing travel from a number of countries without quarantine but the list changes frequently.

The key will clearly be a PCR test that is quick, 100% reliable and available and accepted by all countries. It's sure to happen soon but without that it seems that most countries are going to rely on quarantines so bubbles will continue to be short lived and liable to burst as soon as the virus levels start to rise in any one of the countries, and that unfortunately seems to be a growing trend right now.