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. Restrictions will be eased for visitors from Hong Kong and Macau from Aug. 21, where risk of virus importation is low.
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. Travelers from Singapore were already allowed to enter Germany with minimal restrictions, while Brunei generally limits foreign tourists.
“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.
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.”
Vaccination next steps
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 that Singapore was considering such travel lanes based on a country’s infection and vaccination rates, and their ability to control outbreaks.
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.
“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.”