You want this to be a good thing. You want, desperately, to hear news of yet another travel bubble and think, yes, this is it. This is the beginning of the recovery. This time it's for real.
And at first glance the news over the weekend seemed to be just that. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed that Australian government ministers are in discussions with their Singaporean counterparts to open up a travel bubble with the island nation by July this year, a bubble that would allow returning Australians to quarantine in Singapore before catching their flight home, that would give Singaporean nationals the opportunity to travel to Australia quarantine-free, and allow Australians to visit Singapore with similar ease.
Sounds great, right? Sounds perfect. And when you add to that the news that New Zealand might join the party too, we suddenly have the makings of international travel by the middle of the year, and some light at the end of a very long tunnel for so many Australians trapped overseas.
Only, put down that passport for a second. Because I'm not sure this is the great news we're hoping for.
To begin with, travel bubbles are notoriously ephemeral. They rely on so many factors, not least the continued good will and political expediency of governments from two or three separate sovereign nations, as well as the continued good management of COVID-19 in all of those countries, plus a huge slice of dumb luck to keep numbers in all countries low.
Don't forget, Australia was supposed to have a travel bubble with New Zealand by April. April 2020, that is – almost a year ago. And a new one has been flagged every couple of months since. Though the roll-out of vaccines this year will probably help soothe jittery political nerves, there's still so much that could change and go wrong between now and whenever this next bubble is supposed to be inflated.
So there's that: cynicism, on my part, that this will ever happen, particularly in the mooted timeframe. I hope I'm wrong. But I may not be.
These revelations from the government are also very spare on details. Australians overseas would be able to do their two weeks' quarantine in Singapore, but who's going to pay for that? Are we outsourcing our quarantine responsibilities to another country? Is that viable? Does Singapore have the capacity in its hotel quarantine program to cope with an influx of Australian-bound passengers needing two-week stays? (Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already said quarantine and vaccination for ex-pat Australians are not even part of the discussion)
The trade minister, Dan Tehan, was also very low-key when he spoke on the weekend. "Singapore are very keen to work with Australia on a proof of vaccination certificate and we agreed our officials should work together on this," he said. "I'm scheduled to travel to Singapore in the coming months and this will be a key topic of discussions as we seek to explore a travel bubble with Singapore."
Right. So in a few months we will be seeking to explore the possibility of a bubble? Doesn't sound promising for July.
Still, let's pretend for a second that everything works here, that Singapore agrees, that New Zealand agrees, that nothing drastic changes in the next four months, and the bubble takes shape.
Chances are, you're still not going on holidays. Because the caveat for this opportunity for Australians to travel is that you have to have received a COVID-19 vaccination to be allowed out of the country. Given the projected rate of Australia's vaccine roll-out, even assuming that everything proceeds as it should (which seems tenuous given current issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine), the only people likely to be completely vaccinated against COVID-19 by July are those in high-risk groups, and those over 60.
Anyone under 60, you're still not going anywhere.
It's worth mentioning, too, that those who have spent the past 14 days in Australia can already enter Singapore without requiring quarantine or any sort of detention. The only thing holding Australians back right now is the Australian government. And there's no proposal for that to change – unless you're vaccinated – if and when the bubble takes shape.
And then, finally, we have New Zealand. New Zealand, which is showing absolutely no signs of any sort of enthusiasm for a bubble arrangement with Australia. Already, Kiwis can cross the ditch and enter Australia without quarantine. And our two countries' COVID-19 situations are roughly the same now, give or take a few rogue premiers over here who keep closing their borders.
If there was a genuine will for it, we would already have an Australia-New Zealand travel bubble. But the Kiwis don't want it now, and there's no reason to assume they will suddenly want it in July. What could change between now and then? We can't really have lower numbers here – they're already basically zero. And New Zealand's vaccine program isn't due to wrap up until well into the second half of the year.
To be honest, this latest bubble seems a lot like the Australian government's recent $1.2 billion rescue package for the tourism industry: it sounds great to begin with, until you pick at the seams and it falls apart. (The government agreeing to pay half of people's airfares, the prices for which are set arbitrarily by airlines and could very well double the day the plan kicks in, sounds much more like welfare for the aviation industry than a genuine attempt to save hotels and tour operators and others on the ground.)
Maybe this Singapore bubble will actually happen. Maybe it will help stranded Australians get home, which would be fantastic. Maybe it will allow international students and a smattering of tourists in, which would also be a real victory.
But the harsh reality is that for those who just want to travel to another nation, who quite fancy some Hainanese chicken rice and a Singapore Sling, and maybe even a reunion with loved ones, this probably isn't the answer. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Do you think Australia's proposed bubble with Singapore will work? Would you travel to Singapore in July if you were able? Is this the key to getting more Australians home, or should we be concentrating on quarantine facilities here?