The government of Singapore said Wednesday (22 December) that it is freezing sales of new tickets for inbound flights under the country’s quarantine-free entry programmes known as “vaccinated travel lanes” or VTLs because of growing fears of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. The city-state follows Thailand, which on Tuesday announced it would stop quarantine-free visits until at least 4 January. The moves show the rapidly spreading new strain is beginning to undermine Asia’s recovery from the pandemic.
Effective Thursday (23 December), Singapore will stop sales of new tickets for planes and buses designated for its VTLs until 20 January. At that point, the government said, the plan is to cap total ticket sales at 50 percent of the allocated quota. While the authorities said travellers who already have their tickets will still be allowed to enter the country, the stoppage is likely to upend many holiday plans. The new measures are “proactive and preemptive steps to manage the inflow of vaccinated travel lane travelers and mitigate the risk to the Singapore community, while we observe and assess the emerging situation,” the civil aviation authority explained.
Singapore had detected a total of 71 omicron cases, including 65 imported infections, as of Monday relatively low numbers compared with Western countries where the new variant rages. In the US, which is reporting hundreds of thousands of cases a day, officials have said Omicron is now the dominant strain. Last week, it accounted for 73 percent of new US infections based on sequencing data, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The VTL scheme allows fully vaccinated travellers from selected countries to enter Singapore without having to serve quarantine. This facilitates quarantine-free travel to countries which have earlier opened up to Singapore.
Singapore’s Ministry of Health and aviation authorities said additional precautions will be put in place to protect the aviation community. All airport workers who interact with arriving passengers, including those working in public areas such as taxi stands, will have to wear more personal protective equipment. This includes N95 masks and face shields. Additionally, all front-line airport workers will minimally be placed on seven-day polymerase chain reaction (PCR) rostered routine testing, instead of the current seven-day antigen rapid test (ART) routine testing cycle. In addition, for higher risk front-line airport workers, there will be an employer-supervised ART on the third day of their seven-day PCR testing cycle. This will also apply for Singapore air crew.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Transport Minister S. Iswaran reiterated that those who have already bought VTL flight tickets and meet VTL requirements will still be able to travel to Singapore without quarantine. “I understand that some might be disappointed by these changes to the VTL scheme, but it is an essential and prudent measure to protect public health,” he said. “It is crucial that we tighten our safeguards when warranted by the public health risk assessment, to protect the health and safety of our fellow Singaporeans, front-line aviation workers and travellers.”
The Ministry of Health also said that travellers entering Singapore under the VTL scheme will face stricter enforcement. All VTL travellers must test negative on their self-administered ART before going out for activities each day. The only exception is on day three and day seven of their arrival, when travellers must undergo supervised testing at a testing centre before going about their activities.