SINGAPORE: Singapore on Wednesday (Feb 16) announced the launch of vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) with Hong Kong and other regions.
VTL quotas will also be restored and progressively increased. In addition, authorities said they are streamlining border measures as part of a “pivot” in the country's travel policies.
Speaking at a multi-ministry task force press conference, Transport Minister S Iswaran said the VTLs, which allow quarantine-free travel for those who are fully vaccinated, were set up “as a pathfinder to establish, test and build confidence in reopening safely”.
“We made steady progress but had to take a pause due to Omicron,” he said, noting how Singapore deferred the launch of some VTLs late last year amid a rise in Omicron cases overseas.
The country also temporarily cut the number of VTL travellers entering Singapore.
“Now that we have greater certainty over the nature of Omicron and the associated public health risks, it is important that we pivot our travel posture ... to resume the safe reopening of our borders and reclaim our position as a global business and aviation hub,” said Mr Iswaran.
VTLS TO BE LAUNCHED
A new VTL with Hong Kong, as well as previously deferred VTLs with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will be launched, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced in a press release.
Vaccinated travel pass (VTP) applications for travel from these four countries and regions will open at 10am on Feb 22.
The first VTL flights from these places will take place from Feb 25.
With that, the current unilateral opening arrangement for Hong Kong will cease, said the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) in a separate media release.
Applications by short-term visitors for the air travel pass (ATP) for travel from Hong Kong to Singapore will stop from 11.59pm on Feb 17, and those with travel history to Hong Kong and are holding a valid ATP may enter Singapore up until 11.59pm on Feb 24.
The decision to launch a unilateral VTL with Hong Kong stems from the need to maintain connectivity, said Mr Iswaran.
"The connectivity between Hong Kong and Singapore is a very important one - for business reasons, but also for people-to-people connectivity reasons," he told reporters.
Two-way quarantine-free sea travel between Singapore and Indonesia will also resume with the launch of VTL (Sea) from Bintan and Batam.
This arrangement will "benefit users of Indonesia’s travel bubble to specific resorts in Bintan and Batam and facilitate short-term leisure travel," MOH said.
VTP applications will open at 10am on Feb 22 and the first ferry trip will take place on Feb 25.
In addition, CAAS said Singapore will "deepen the VTL" for Thailand beyond Bangkok to include flights from all cities in the Southeast Asian country.
Airlines that plan to operate from more cities from Thailand under the VTL may submit their plans for designated flights to CAAS for approval.
New VTLs for Israel and the Philippines will also be launched to establish two-way quarantine-free travel. Travellers from these countries may enter Singapore under the VTL on or after Mar 4. VTP applications for these countries will open at 10am on Mar 1.
VTL QUOTAS RESTORED
The quotas for VTL flights will be fully restored with immediate effect, while the quota for VTL (land) between Singapore and Malaysia will be fully restored from Feb 22. Sales for additional bus tickets will start on Feb 16.
These quotas will also be progressively increased, said MOH.
In a separate press release, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said measures for VTL travellers by land will be streamlined.
For example, instead of a supervised self-swab antigen rapid test (ART) upon arrival at the bus terminal, travellers will do the supervised self-swab ART within 24 hours of arrival at a quick test centre or combined test centre. A weblink to book the test will be provided in the testing notice issued on arrival.
The enhanced testing protocol requiring unsupervised self-swab ARTs on days 2 to 7 of arrival will also cease. Travellers will instead have to do only the pre-departure test and the on-arrival test.
Meanwhile, only work permit holders and short-term visitors eligible to travel via VTL land will have to apply for a VTP now. Other long-term pass holders will no longer have to apply for a VTP.
Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong said discussions on expanding the quarantine-free travel arrangement with Malaysia to include private vehicles and bus coaches are still ongoing.
"It's something that we are discussing and when we are ready, we will make the appropriate announcement."
Singapore has VTL arrangements with 24 countries as of Feb 15.
Around 389,046 travellers have entered Singapore via this quarantine-free scheme, according to CAAS. These include 109,325 short-term visitors, 99,259 long-term pass holders, 146,081 Singapore citizens and permanent residents, as well as 34,381 children aged 12 years and below.
Authorities have also issued 337,310 VTPs to short-term visitors and long-term pass holders for entry into Singapore between Sep 8, 2021 and Feb 15, 2022.
STREAMLINING OF BORDER MEASURES
A streamlining of border measures was also announced on Wednesday.
Currently, countries and regions are classified into four categories based on their COVID-19 situation and risk profile, with differentiated border measures for each category.
Under the latest update, the current categories II, III, and IV will be combined into a single General Travel category.
Quarantine-free border measures will continue to apply to fully vaccinated travellers arriving via VTL arrangements and those from countries and regions classified under Category I, namely Macao, mainland China and Taiwan.
A new Restricted category will be created. This will apply to countries and regions with "developing COVID-19 situations that warrant stricter border measures" imposed on arrival. There are no countries under this new category at the moment.
These changes are the initial steps that Singapore is taking as it pivots its border control measures, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.
“In the past, the objective of travel rules was to prevent the import of infections in Singapore ... Now, imported infections are about 1 per cent of total daily case counts so they no longer have a material impact on our epidemic situation.”
The concern is now on ensuring that travellers are well protected from COVID-19 so that they do not burden the healthcare system if they get infected here, he added.
“Hence, we should actually emphasize less on (stay-home notices) and tests on travellers (and) more on ensuring that they are fully vaccinated and boosted,” said Mr Ong.
This will require “quite a fundamental change” to Singapore’s travel schemes. Instead of having VTLs with selected countries, Singapore should “allow SHN-free travel for fully vaccinated travellers from all countries”.
"We should make this transition not now, but after the Omicron wave has peaked and started to subside,” the minister said, adding that this transition should be done “in steps”, instead of an abrupt change.
In tandem, border measures for travellers arriving from 11.59pm on Feb 21 will be simplified.
The travel history requirement will be reduced from 14 days to seven days, and stay-home notice duration will be standardised to seven days across all country or region categories.
The shorter stay-home notice period is in view of Omicron's shorter incubation period, said MOH.
The enhanced testing regime for VTL travellers will also be ceased. VTL and Category I travellers will no longer need to do an on-arrival polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
They will instead have up to 24 hours from entry into Singapore to take a supervised self-swab antigen rapid test (ART) at a testing centre.
The seven-day testing regime - doing an ART every day for the next six days after arrival - will also cease.
Vaccinated long-term pass holders, except work permit holders, will no longer have to obtain a VTP or an entry approval to enter Singapore. They will still need to adhere to border health measures on entry, said MOH.
ENCOURAGING PEOPLE TO USE VTLS
Responding to CNA's queries about people getting stranded in a country if they contract COVID-19 while travelling, Mr Iswaran said it was a "legitimate" concern.
"We have to take dressing from the protocols that we have established for travel, and those protocols are based on public health risk assessments," the Transport Minister said.
He added that pre-departure testing before coming to Singapore was now "more flexible" with ARTs. Together with testing after arrival, this is an "important" measure that has been kept in place.
"That is also why we have repeatedly advised Singaporeans and others from Singapore who are travelling overseas to exercise due care to assess the circumstances in the countries they're visiting – to also make plans for contingencies, whether it is taking insurance etc, should the travel plans be disrupted because of the kind of scenarios you've highlighted," said Mr Iswaran.
"I think we will continue to evaluate this and we will be guided by the public health risk assessments and we will then make further modifications, but that is the posture today, and it is designed with public health considerations in mind."
MOH said Singapore's border measures to date have been aimed at controlling the number of imported cases.
"As Singapore’s incidence rate is now comparable with most overseas destinations, imported cases are unlikely to affect the trajectory of local cases," it added.
"Our focus has thus shifted to facilitating inflows from travellers who are less likely to become severely ill and burden our healthcare capacity while they are in Singapore.
"As vaccination offers good protection against severe disease, we will continue to work towards allowing stay-home-notice free travel for all fully vaccinated travellers."