The Australian and Singapore governments have confirmed they are working together on plans for a reciprocal travel bubble for those who’ve received their COVID-19 vaccination, with the possibility for the arrangement to launch as early as July 2021.
With the only other formally proposed Air Travel Bubble (ATB) between Singapore and Hong Kong well and truly on ice for the time being, and possibly being resurrected with “additional safeguards”, this could be the next opportunity to get excited about and a great incentive to get the jab once your turn comes around.
According to Channel News Asia, the scheme will allow residents to travel between both countries without having to quarantine, not simply nationals, which makes more sense.
Singapore’s Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung had already stated that travel bubbles may become a reality in the second half of 2021, with countries boasting low to moderate COVID-19 infection rates.
The news comes as Thailand begins to progressively reduce its arrival quarantine requirement from April 2021 to seven days for vaccinated travellers, plus there are positive signs for the reopening of tourism in Bali later this year and a Singapore – Taiwan ATB is even being mooted.
Proof of vaccination will be required
As part of the proposal, both Singapore and Australia will adopt a mutually recognised COVID-19 vaccination certificate, which is almost certain to be a digital solution.
Vaccinated Australians can already access their certificate through the ExpressPlus Medicare app, while those who’ve had the jab in Singapore can do so through the HealthHub SG app, however this data will need to feed in to an inter-operable system recognised by the airlines for verification at check-in.
The IATA Travel Pass is one such solution, being trialled by Singapore Airlines for the rest of March 2021. Qantas is currently trying out a different solution, CommonPass, but will also test the IATA Travel Pass later before making any decisions.
How’s the vaccine rollout going?
As of 8th March 2021, 611,314 vaccine doses have been administered to Singapore residents, with 218,694 having completed the full vaccination regimen (two doses).
At the current rate of vaccination of 86,300 doses per week (based on 1st-8th March), it will take Singapore over two years to vaccinate its adult population, so let’s hope the rate significantly increases in the near future so that the country can meet its target to complete the programme by the end of 2021.Fun fact: Assuming an immediate vaccination rate increase to around 250,000 doses per week, which would be the level required from now until the end of the year for the government target to be met, around 2 million residents would be fully vaccinated by July 2021.
That should be everyone aged around 40-45 and above, plus those already in identified priority groups.
Unfortunately it means the millennials among us may have to wait until later in the year to take advantage of a potential Aussie ATB.
Australia, which started its vaccination campaign on 21st February 2021, has so far administered 162,791 doses (as of 14th March). Like Singapore, the country will need to ramp up its vaccination rate significantly to meet government targets to vaccinate all resident adults by October 2021.
Based on the plans, those in Australia’s ‘Phase 2a’ (aged 50 and above, plus priority groups) should be vaccinated by mid-year, close to 8 million individuals, which will certainly include a ready supply of travellers eager to visit Asia under this potential ATB arrangement.
With vaccine rollouts then continuing, the vast majority of adults in both countries should be eligible to use the potential ATB by Q4 2021. Whether children under 16 will be able to participate is not currently known, since they are ineligible for vaccines at this stage, so this has the potential to disappoint some families who may still be unable to travel to Australia by year-end.
Globally, over 350 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered at the time of writing, according to Bloomberg data, with the latest rate in excess of 9 million doses per day.
Fully vaccinated status is a likely requirement
One aspect to consider is that you’re not vaccinated until you’ve completed the required dosage course. Most countries define “fully vaccinated” as two weeks after your second dose (for two-dose vaccines), and this is an almost inevitable requirement should this ATB get up and running.
Here’s an example of how that works for the two vaccines currently being administered in Singapore.
Example dosage to full vaccination timeline
|1st dose||1st July 2021||1st July 2021|
|+ 21 days||+ 28 days|
|2nd dose||22nd July 2021||29th July 2021|
|+ 14 days||+ 14 days|
|Fully vaccinated||5th August 2021||12th August 2021|
As you can see, even if you get your first vaccine dose in early July 2021, it will be early to mid-August 2021 before you are considered fully vaccinated with the necessary immunity to travel in cases where vaccinated status is a requirement.
New Zealand may be included
Reports also suggest that New Zealand could be included in the arrangement, for a three-country trilateral travel bubble, which would significantly improve options and potentially permit itineraries including two countries on the same trip.
Singapore has already unilaterally opened its borders to arrivals from Australia and New Zealand via an Air Travel Pass programme, so this would largely hinge on the long-awaited (and often stalled) Australia – New Zealand reciprocal travel bubble getting off the ground over the coming months.
Singapore ‘quarantine hub’
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, part of the plan also involves Australia using Singapore as a ‘quarantine hub’, to help clear its backlog of Australian residents still trying to get home from overseas due to the strict arrival caps imposed.
This would permit those coming from other countries to use Singapore’s arrival testing and SHN hotel capacity for 14 days, before allowing them to continue their journey to Australia using the ATB, with no subsequent quarantine requirement on arrival.
Not only would such a scheme help relieve pressure on Australia’s quarantine facilities, it would boost revenue for hotels here in Singapore, plus provide increased traffic volumes for Singapore Airlines.
Earlier today however, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs poured cold water on the idea, saying “we are not in discussion on the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub”.
A formal travel bubble arrangement between Singapore and Australia, like the (apparently jinxed) proposed ATB with Hong Kong, will probably require travellers to fly on specific designated flights between the two countries, to avoid arrival quarantine in either direction.
SIA is currently operating 37 flights per week between Singapore five cities in Australia, as the sole passenger carrier currently linking the two countries.
(Mar – May 2021)
Sydney is increasing to 17 flights per week from April 2021, picking up additional Boeing 787-10 services, to become the most frequently served city across SIA’s current global network.
Scoot was previously flying daily services from Singapore to and from Melbourne, however these are currently suspended in both directions, while Qantas A330 flights between Singapore and Australia are operating as cargo-only services.
Designated flights for an ATB would almost certainly mean no transit passengers are permitted, and will almost certainly also include Qantas services so that both major national carriers get a slice of the pie.
A potential all-purpose travel bubble between Singapore and Australia could also see the return of direct services to Darwin (Jetstar / SilkAir / SIA) and Cairns (SilkAir / SIA) in due course.
Should you book now?
Given that a potential ATB between Australia and Singapore is still under planning, with timelines uncertain and the strong potential for designated ATB flights, it’s almost certainly not worth making speculative bookings or redemptions at this stage.
Having said that, Singapore Airlines is currently waiving rebooking fees for revenue and award tickets issued by 30th June 2021.
This allows you to make complimentary date changes, subject to availability and any fare differences for cash tickets.
There are increasingly positive statements and proposals for the restart of discretionary travel in the Asia-Pacific region from the second half of 2021, and this latest ATB news is an encouraging sign that, whether it goes ahead or not, we should at least be able to travel somewhere later this year!
A travel bubble between Australia / NZ and Singapore is certainly exciting, linking very popular destinations no matter which country you live in, and with pent-up demand in both directions which should benefit all involved.
One item of concern – Australia hasn’t even managed its travel bubble with New Zealand yet, promised many times and most recently by the end of March 2021, but seemingly still struggling to get off the ground in a true bilateral manner.
The difference in this case? Vaccination.
An ATB for exclusive use by fully vaccinated travellers (at least initially) significantly reduces risk and should mean little to no increased pressure on healthcare systems in either country.
That gives us cause for optimism with this particular proposal, over and above other failed or stalled travel bubble attempts, since the region will inevitably have to restart international travel for vaccinated individuals first while COVID-19 is still with us.
(Cover Photo: Shutterstock)