In recent days Singapore has been starting to outline its strategy for life to start making a return to normal, with COVID-19 eventually being treated as an endemic disease like the flu, once the country has achieved a high level of immunity through its ongoing vaccination programme.
It’s a refreshing change from the “zero COVID” concept widely adopted across the Asia-Pacific region, and will ultimately see the end of lockdowns and mass contact tracing, allowing large gatherings once again and a return to the office for many workers.
Singapore will even stop reporting its daily COVID-19 cases, instead favouring what it sees as more meaningful data on patient outcomes, such as those needing intensive care, the same way seasonal flu is currently monitored.
Crucially for our readers, there will also be a return to quarantine-free travel for vaccinated residents and visitors in this ‘new normal’. While this element is seen as posing the greatest risk, it is also essential for the national economy, and restrictions will start to be lifted for specific locations by the end of the year under the latest plans.
How can it happen? Vaccination.
“We can identify the safe regions, [and] open up to them first.”, Singapore’s Heath Minister Ong Ye Kung said in an interview with The Straits Times on Thursday, in which he also said there should be further relaxations on activities in Singapore when the percentage of fully vaccinated residents hits 50% later this month and 67% by 9th August.
On Friday 2nd July 2021, Singapore vaccinated 79,192 people, it’s highest daily total since the programme started in December 2020. 62,678 received their first dose, while 16,514 second doses were administered.
Europe and the USA could be among the first options
In his interview with The Straits Times, Singapore’s Health Minister identified a few places that may be considered for travel relaxation towards the end of this year, based on their high (and increasing) vaccination rates, and in most cases falling COVID-19 case numbers.
With pure case numbers having little relevance, the government will instead focus on the new average daily case rate per 100,000 of the population in each country it assesses. For example 220 new COVID-19 cases per day in Japan is equivalent to just 10 cases per day in Singapore, due to the countries’ vastly different populations, so the rate is far more meaningful than the total.
“Once the [new case] trajectory is downwards, vaccination [is] going up and you go below say 3 [cases] per 100,000, we should start looking at those countries seriously.”Ong Ye Kung, Singapore Health Minister
Mr Ong specifically mentioned “most of the EU” and the USA as examples that currently fall into this category, based on the latest data.
COVID-19 cases and vaccination status
Europe & North America
|Country||New cases*||Fully vaccinated||Days to herd immunity^|
As the table shows there are several countries currently falling within Mr Ong’s approximate stated criteria and vaccination rates are increasing fast across nearly all of them.
Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, for example, are on track to reach 80% fully vaccinated status by the end of August, around the same time as Singapore, with Germany, France and Switzerland not far behind.
With the exception of Canada, all of these countries are already accepting visitors from Singapore, with no arrival quarantine required if a negative COVID-19 test or fully vaccinated status can be shown.
What about Asia-Pacific?
Compare the table above with vaccination rates in Asia-Pacific and the difference becomes immediately apparent.
COVID-19 cases and vaccination status
|Country||New cases*||Fully vaccinated||Days to herd immunity^|
|🇰🇷 South Korea||1.3||10.0%||562|
|🇳🇿 New Zealand||0.1||9.0%||361|
|🇭🇰 Hong Kong||0.0||20.3%||145|
|🇨🇳 Mainland China||0.0||30.0%**||48|
The difference in vaccination rates is stark, with many European countries on track to reach herd immunity or even fully vaccinated status in just three to four months from now, while in Asia-Pacific – with the exception of Singapore, Hong Kong and Mainland China – some of the timescales are alarming assuming current vaccination rates don’t improve.
There’s also the issue of border restrictions, with very few of these countries currently allowing Singapore residents entry for tourism purposes, quite unlike Europe and the USA who are welcoming us with open arms.
It will take years for places like Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam to reach anything close to herd immunity in their populations based on the latest pace of inoculations.
Even Australia and New Zealand aren’t likely to achieve it until 2022, though both countries are promising to increase their jab rates in the coming months.
Japan is a nice standout, however. The country is currently administering an incredible 1.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses every single day (higher than the USA), enough to cover 80% of its 126 million population with two doses by the end of October 2021, if the current rate can be maintained.
It’s worth noting though that Japan is currently racing to inoculate as many of its residents as possible using its current supplies of the Pfizer vaccine ahead of the Summer Olympics at the end of this month, with upcoming vaccine supply “greatly decreasing”, meaning it’s unlikely the country can keep up such an impressive dosage rate for long.
Japan’s official target is to complete its vaccination programme by the end of November 2021.
Meanwhile, mainland China has administered a whopping 1.3 billion COVID-19 vaccine shots at the time of writing (1,264,149,000), equivalent to 40% (2 in 5) of doses given globally.
The country does not break down how many are first or second doses, but compared to similar total vaccination rates in other countries, it’s reasonable to assume that around 30-35% of the population there is now fully vaccinated (840 million people).
Unfortunately, despite the low case totals and high vaccination rate, China is planning to keep its border restrictions in place until the second half of 2022, making it an unlikely leisure travel option for at least a year, unless Singapore strikes up a reciprocal bubble arrangement.
No love for the UK?
With a new COVID-19 wave in the UK since the country began to ease lockdown restrictions, there’s certainly no chance of a quarantine-free travel arrangement based on the current new infection rate there of 28 daily cases per 100,000 population, nearly three times the specified threshold for consideration.
That doesn’t mean the UK is a write-off for the rest of the year, however. The latest wave is mainly among its younger (unvaccinated) population, with hospitalisations and deaths trending only slightly higher.
“Although the UK due to Delta variant [is] also spiking up [we] are watching the situation closely but it would appear that whilst cases are spiking up you are not seeing a lot more ICU and deaths compared to before.
“Part of the reason is their elderly and their seniors are well vaccinated, and the spike is mostly caused by young people falling sick, and they don’t fall sick as seriously as older people.”Ong Ye Kung, Singapore Health Minister
The UK is by far the most popular European country for Singaporean travellers, but is also an essential trade and business link, with 54 non-stop flights per week from Singapore pre-COVID, hence its permanent place on the government’s radar for a reopening opportunity.
What is Singapore’s ‘herd immunity’ percentage?
In December 2020 Singapore’s Chief Health Scientist Professor Tan Chorh Chuan said that 80% vaccine coverage would be required among residents to provide herd immunity against COVID-19.
Since then most politicians have shied away from specifying an exact number, though in Thursday’s interview with the Straits Times Singapore’s Heath Minister Ong Ye Kung reiterated the 80% threshold.
“…the scientists that did the simulation felt that you may need 80% or more”Ong Ye Kung, Singapore Health Minister
Singapore is on track to achieve 50% of residents fully vaccinated by late July 2021 and 67% fully vaccinated by National Day on 9th August 2021. However, reaching 80% double dosed (technically possible with current vaccination rates by early September 2021), will be very difficult to achieve in reality.
Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, meaning only around 90% of the resident population can be immunised. Reaching 80% overall would therefore require an exceptionally high vaccine uptake rate of 89% among eligible residents, but so far it is significantly less than that.
Percentage of Singapore residents with 1+ dose, or who have booked their first dose
(as of 30th June)
- 76% Age 60+
- 78% Age 45-59
- 73% Age 40-44
- 80% Age 12-39
In the most vulnerable group, those aged 70+, uptake is still said to be less than 70% so far.
Singapore may therefore have to settle for around 70% of its total population fully vaccinated as an interim level until younger children can receive the jab, which would require a more realistic average uptake of 78% among eligible residents.
The devil’s in the detail
Even if the vaccination rollout and Singapore’s plan to unlock towards endemic status goes smoothly, and both case rates and vaccinations in these foreign countries evolve favourably, there are still a lot of details to be revealed on how exactly these reduced or zero-quarantine leisure trips would work.
- Will total exemption from arrival SHN (quarantine) in Singapore be exclusively available to fully vaccinated travellers?
- What testing will be required, and will it differ between vaccinated and non-vaccinated travellers?
- Will vaccines administered overseas but not approved for use in Singapore (e.g. AstraZeneca for European tourists visiting) be recognised?
- Will paper vaccine cards, like those issued in the USA, be recognised?
- How will those unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons and children under 12 be treated when travelling with fully vaccinated family members?
- Will transiting in a country with a higher risk travel assessment (e.g. Qatar or the UAE) invalidate your quarantine-free perks on return to Singapore?
Singapore could adopt a traffic light system, like many European countries have done, to determine the quarantine requirements both for residents returning and visitors arriving at Changi.
For example, arriving from a ‘green list’ country might involve an on-arrival PCR test for those fully vaccinated, then simply self-isolating at home for a few hours while awaiting the test result.
Those unvaccinated from the same countries, however, might still require a 7-day self-isolation at home (or 7-day hotel SHN), with an additional test prior to the end of their quarantine period.
At the high risk end, arrivals from ‘red list’ locations could still require a hotel SHN period, regardless of vaccination status. Unvaccinated visitors from these countries might also not be allowed to travel to Singapore, initially at least.
It’s just an example of the sort of system we expect might be implemented as Singapore gradually opens up to the world again.
With Singapore’s step-by-step shift from a pandemic to endemic COVID-19 management strategy, there’s cause for optimism regarding leisure travel later this year, now that the government is promising to relax restrictions for those returning or visiting from specific countries with low infection and high vaccination rates.
European countries, the USA, Hong Kong and South Korea have been mentioned, though places like Canada and Japan should also be excellent candidates in the months ahead.
Opening up quarantine-free travel in the Asia-Pacific region looks set to be more difficult if Singapore sticks to its approach of requiring high vaccination alongside controlled case numbers, due to slow inoculation rates in many popular neighbouring countries.
The good news is there should be several leisure travel options by the end of 2021 if everything goes to plan, including long-haul countries, but vaccination remains key so do get your jabs if you haven’t done so already!
Where do you think Singapore is likely to open up to later this year, and what do you think the process will be? Let us know in the comments section below.
(Cover Photo: Shutterstock)