(Aug 19): Singapore will pilot quarantine-free travel lanes for vaccinated passengers next month from Germany and Brunei and open up to visitors from Hong Kong and Macau in its first big move yet to lift border restrictions that have been in place since early in the pandemic.
In what are the highly anticipated first steps of the city’s reopening, travelers from Germany and Brunei can enter Singapore from Sept 8 without the need to have a purpose for visiting and controlled itinerary or sponsor requirements, officials said during a press briefing in the city-state Thursday.
While Singapore is easing restrictions on inbound travel from Hong Kong, the two financial hubs won’t go ahead with plans for an air travel bubble, the governments said. Their strategies for containing Covid have diverged — Hong Kong is still pursuing a Covid-zero eradication path, while Singapore seeks to reopen with a backstop of one of the world’s best vaccination rates.
Germany and Brunei were chosen as places where Singapore could test its confidence in vaccinated travel lanes, with Covid infections in both places at manageable levels.
Though Brunei limits foreign tourism, travelers from Singapore were already allowed to enter Germany with minimal restrictions.
“As the saying goes, we are feeling the stones as we cross the river,” said Lawrence Wong, the finance minister and a co-chair of the nation’s Covid task force. “Each time we make a move we will monitor the data, we will look at the evidence and ensure that our hospital system is able to cope with the infection situation before we take the next step.”
Singapore is the first among the group of places with a zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 to start pivoting its approach from strict containment to treating the pathogen as endemic.
While the reopening comes as a relief to residents and businesses, the highly limited nature of the first steps indicates that the process will move more slowly than some hoped.
Vaccination next steps
Singapore Airlines welcomed the easing, calling the move an “important step in the safe and calibrated reopening of the Singapore air hub, on the back of robust vaccination rates in Singapore.” The airline plans to operate vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights from Frankfurt and Munich to Singapore from Sept 7.
Elise Becker, vice president Asia-Pacific for Lufthansa Group, said in a statement that the airline was “delighted” by the easing to Germany. “It will not only help people reunite safely with family, friends and loved ones but may also be a role model for other Asia-Pacific countries to follow.”
The travel lane underscores Singapore’s plan to differentiate between those who get vaccinated and those who don’t.
Short-term visitors aren’t allowed from Germany and Brunei if they’re not fully vaccinated. And the travel lane won’t extend to children too young for the jabs, even if their parents are vaccinated.
Singapore is eyeing a third round of vaccine as booster shots for some fully-vaccinated individuals, especially the severely immunocompromised. Recommendations are expected shortly.
Singapore also expects to begin vaccinating children under age 12 sometime in early 2022, after safety and efficacy have been sufficiently studied.
The travel easing decision comes days after Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong told Bloomberg News in an interview that Singapore was considering such travel lanes based on a country’s infection and vaccination rates, and their ability to control outbreaks.
Restrictions will be eased for Singapore residents coming from Hong Kong and Macau from August 21, and further eased for visitors from the two places from August 26. They join New Zealand, most of mainland China and Taiwan as economies with the least entry restrictions to Singapore, or Category I on the city-state’s four-part list.
Australia, Canada, South Korea and China’s Jiangsu province form Category II, where travelers can quarantine for just seven days. The group also includes all travelers from Germany and Brunei who aren’t utilizing the vaccinated travel lane.
Category III, which allows home-based quarantine for 14 days, includes Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland. All other countries for which Singapore hasn’t banned entry form Category IV, which requires 14 days quarantine in a dedicated hotel facility on entry.
While business and leisure travel is essential to Singapore’s trade-dependent economy, the government to date has restricted movement and applied constrictive domestic measures as a means to control infections. However with nearly 80% of its population now fully vaccinated — one of the highest rates in the world — it’s begun shifting to an approach that tries to treat the disease more like influenza.
No herd immunity
In addition to the travel pilot, Singapore on Thursday also eased strict work-from-home rules, allowing as many as 50% of employees who are otherwise able to work at home to return to the office.
It also increased the capacity of spaces that see large numbers of patrons, such as malls and cinemas, and ended temperature screenings that have been required to enter public places since early in the pandemic.
Yet even with all the easing, Singapore continues to have stiffer social-distancing rules than most western financial capitals, according to data on local restrictions compiled by Bloomberg. And that may not end anytime soon.
“We should be under no illusion that the road ahead will be an easy one,” Wong said, reiterating that Singapore may need to pause or pull back some measures if clusters grow to the point it strains the city-state’s hospital system.
“The path toward being a Covid resilient nation is going to be long and hard slog,” he said. “Even at very high vaccination rates we are not going to reach herd immunity where the outbreak just fizzles out.”