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COVID-19: Singapore offers early vaccinations to aviation workers

Vaccinated air crew in Singapore will undergo less frequent testing, signalling potential future relaxations for travellers who've had the jab.

Those working in the aviation industry in Singapore are now among the first in line to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, it has been revealed, in an effort to reduce imported infections, help protect country’s air hub and restore air travel sooner.

The news comes after at least two recent cases of Singapore Airlines staff, a pilot and a cabin crew member, who had returned from overseas layovers having contracted the virus, potentially risking transmissions and outbreaks on their return.

Until now, COVID-19 vaccines in Singapore have only been offered to frontline healthcare workers, while a general rollout plan for all citizens will commence in February 2021, starting with those aged over 70.

“We aim to begin vaccinating the elderly, starting with those aged 70 years and above, from February 2021. Thereafter we will vaccinate other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible for vaccination.”

Singapore Ministry of Health

Aviation staff are now in line

On Monday this week the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) announced that a full-scale vaccination of air crew and airport workers had already commenced, with 7,000 staff expected to receive their first doses this week.

Which vaccine? Singapore is currently offering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which requires two doses to be administered three weeks apart.

Other vaccines secured for future delivery but not yet approved for use in the city state include those produced by Moderna and Sinovac.

As with the general population in Singapore, the vaccine is strongly recommended for air crew and other aviation staff, but will remain voluntary.

Singapore’s Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung and SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong were both vaccinated on Monday alongside aviation staff, in a bid to encourage others to take up the offer of an early vaccine. Mainly Miles understands those who do not volunteer now will still be eligible for their jab as part of the general public rollout later in the year, if they prefer to wait.

Ong Ye Kung received his first COVID-19 vaccination dose on Monday, alongside hundreds of aviation workers. (Photo: Ong Ye Kung’s Facebook page)

Air crew face considerable risks in the course of their duties. They do so because it is critical for Singapore to maintain air connectivity. Many essential supplies, such as vaccines, can only be delivered by air. Singaporeans overseas and other essential travellers need to be able to travel to and from Singapore.

CAAS

Aviation staff being vaccinated as part of this programme include those from the following companies:

  • Singapore Airlines
  • Scoot
  • Jetstar Asia
  • SATS
  • dnata
  • Certis Cisco
  • Sergent Services
  • Changi Airport Group
  • CAAS

Priority will be given to the 20,000 frontline workers who may come into contact with travellers from high risk countries, as well as their belongings. These include pilots, cabin crew, airport and aircraft cleaners, security screeners, passenger service agents, baggage handlers and cargo handlers.

CAAS

Mr Ong even stated that “Singapore Airlines can be the first vaccinated international airline of the world” as a result of these measures, though without mandatory inoculation it’s more likely it can come “close, but not quite there”.

Changi Terminal 4 is being used

Vaccinations are being administered in a dedicated facility at Changi Airport’s Terminal 4, the airport’s newest terminal, which has been closed to passenger operations since May 2020.

Changi’s Terminal 4 is already being used as a routine testing facility for Singapore-based air crew. (Photo: Changi Airport Group)

Active air crew are already receiving routine COVID-19 tests at the T4 testing centre, meaning most of the medical setup to perform vaccinations in addition to this testing was probably already in place, making this location a logical choice for the process.

Up to 2,000 people per day can be vaccinated at the T4 facility.

The vaccination programme, dubbed the Sea – Air Vaccination Exercise (SAVE), involves the Changi Terminal 4 resource running in parallel with a similar setup at Raffles City Convention Centre, which currently has capacity to vaccinate 1,000 people per day and is being used to inoculate maritime workers.

The total daily vaccination capacity of the two centres can be increased to 8,000 in future, according to the Business Times.

Vaccination will reduce routine testing

Currently Singapore-based air crew are regularly tested for COVID-19, either every 7 or 14 days, with additional tests recently imposed for those returning from layovers in high risk countries.

Once these crew have been administered with the second dose of the vaccine, these rules will be relaxed.

In view of the better protection offered by vaccination, air crew and airport workers who have completed their full course of vaccination can undergo fewer testing requirements.

CAAS
  • Those who currently undergo 7-day Rostered Routine Testing (RRT) will only need to be tested every 14 days.
  • Those who currently undergo 14-day RRT will only need to be tested on a monthly basis.

Additionally, fully vaccinated air crew who are currently tested on the seventh day after their return to Singapore will be exempted from their test. Those who are tested on arrival in Singapore, and on the third and seventh day, will only need to be tested on arrival, and on the seventh day of their return to Singapore.

Crew from Singapore Airlines, Scoot, SilkAir and Jetstar who have been fully vaccinated will benefit from fewer routine tests. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

This is a promising sign as it not only affirms the government’s confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccine but also could be a blueprint for relaxing testing and SHN requirements for regular travellers who have been vaccinated, later this year.

In early January the government hinted that, provided data supported a lower transmission risk, vaccinated travellers may be able to benefit from “some relaxation to the SHN (stay home notice) regime”.

Summary

Global COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, including in Singapore itself, are the basis of great hope for a revival of travel later this year. With few local cases, Singapore is protecting and prioritising its aviation sector early, which it sees not only as vital but a ‘weak point’ in the fight against COVID-19.

At the time of writing, over 46 million COVID-19 vaccination shots have been administered worldwide, the USA leading the campaign with 16 million doses given.

Singapore has secured enough vaccines for its entire adult population by the third quarter of 2021, with the rollout planned to be completed by the end of the year.

“Vaccination is a priority for us. We have sufficient doses to vaccinate all 20,000 frontline air crew and airport workers. Vaccination is safe. More than 1,000 aviation workers have already received their first dose. We strongly encourage air crew and airport workers to come forward for vaccination.”

Kevin Shum, CAAS Director-General

Singapore Airlines may not become the world’s first fully vaccinated airline, given that the programme remains voluntary for its staff, however a widely administered vaccine for its staff will help with consumer confidence as travel restrictions are, we hope, progressively eased.

(Cover Photo: Olaf Schuelke / Alamy)

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