The Singapore Government has made its first rollback of the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme since its inception in September this year, with the announcement that it will not proceed with a proposed expansion of the programme to include three Middle East Countries, originally planned for next week.
From 6th December Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were due to join the VTL, with designated flights already outlined, however these three quarantine-free arrangements have now been indefinitely postponed.
Why is this happening?
On 26th November 2021, the World Health Organisation classified a new COVID-19 variant (B.1.1.529) as a variant of concern, named Omicron.
South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, currently has the largest volume of infections, though cases have now been confirmed in other countries including Belgium, Hong Kong, Germany, Italy and the UK.
The variant’s characteristics suggest it has potential to be more contagious and perhaps even immune-evading, but it’s too early to tell at this stage exactly how concerned we need to be about it.
Over the coming weeks scientists will be working to determine whether the variant is more transmissible, whether it can lead to more severe illness, and how effective current vaccines are against it.
There could still be good or bad news in each of these areas.
In the meantime an abundance of caution is beginning to circulate, with countries including Singapore tightening border measures for those with specific travel history, and the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria imposing 3-day arrival isolation for fully vaccinated international travellers.
Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai are major international transit hubs, and despite Singapore’s VTL arrangement requiring full vaccination and a specific declared travel history, the government is clearly concerned about the possibility of transmission in transit at these airports.
The news comes despite best efforts by the Middle East carriers to avoid facing sanctions in other countries due to Omicron.
Yesterday, however, it was confirmed that two Qatar Airways passengers who originated in South Africa tested positive for the Omicron variant on arrival in Sydney, before that carrier’s policy had come into effect for those departing from Johannesburg.
That news will certainly have spooked authorities here in Singapore, where there are no confirmed Omicron cases at the time of writing.
Which flights are impacted?
The following previously confirmed VTL flights will no longer operate under the quarantine-free programme from 6th December 2021:
- Abu Dhabi: 3 x weekly Etihad Airways
- Doha: 5 x weekly Qatar Airways
- Dubai: 7 x weekly Singapore Airlines
- Dubai: 3 x weekly Emirates
- Jeddah: 3 x weekly Scoot
At the time of writing, Singapore residents including pass holders will still be able to return home from these countries under Category 2 requirements, which means seven days of SHN at home or in suitable accommodation like a self-sourced hotel room.
Short-term visitors will no longer be able to plan visits from Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the UAE until a further announcement is made regarding future addition to the VTL scheme.
You can see the latest list of confirmed VTL flights to Singapore at our dedicated page here.
Transit options limited
One of the major benefits of these Middle East countries joining the VTL was the option to transit there both outbound (on any flight) and inbound (on a designated flight) when taking trips from Singapore to Europe and the USA.
This presented the option of better fares and award availability, while Singapore Airlines otherwise remained dominant on these routes as far as quarantine-free travel in both directions was concerned.
Unfortunately these options with the likes of Qatar Airways and Emirates now look to be on the back burner while we wait to learn more about the Omicron variant.
What about the other VTLs?
Currently there are no changes announced for Singapore’s 18 existing VTL links, with five of those countries joining the list today including Malaysia, Finland and India.
Singapore Vaccinated Travel Lanes
|Already Running||🇦🇺 Australia
🇰🇷 South Korea
|From 6 Dec||
🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia
|From 14 Dec||🇹🇭 Thailand|
|From 16 Dec||🇰🇭 Cambodia
🇱🇰 Sri Lanka
Assuming no further changes, there will now be 24 countries on the VTL scheme by mid-December, still providing a wide range of options for quarantine-free travel including both regional and long-haul options.
More culls to come?
It’s very early days with the Omicron variant and there are probably more questions than answers at this stage, which makes it very difficult to predict how the international travel and border situation will play out in the days, weeks and months ahead.
As far as further changes for the VTL go, it will really depend on global developments, though the government here is already priming us for more changes.
“As the global situation evolves, we will continue to adjust our border measures in tandem with our roadmap to becoming a COVID resilient nation.”
“We are reviewing our border measures, and will announce more details soon.”Singapore Ministry of Health
This statement confirms existing measures will be tightened in the coming days.
An obvious first step for Singapore would be to move back to the (more accurate) PCR pre-departure test requirement for those originating in VTL, Category 2 and Category 3 countries, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this announced imminently.
Currently, travellers in the aforementioned categories can take an Antigen Rapid Test (ART) at an approved medical centre prior to departure, which significantly reduces costs especially for families, but can potentially have only 80% accuracy at detecting positive cases compared to 99.5% with a PCR test.
Testing changes could be the tip of the iceberg, however. If Omicron starts to take hold in a VTL country while so little about the variant’s severity is known, Singapore will surely have no choice but to cut that particular arrangement quickly and decisively.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, and we can have good news about this variant in the days ahead.
It’s shame to see the first three Middle East countries joining the VTL suffer this setback just a week before quarantine-free flights were due to start, but the Singapore Government is acting cautiously with news of this new COVID variant, and is priming us for more border changes to come.
It was never going to be a linear recovery from COVID-19 as far as travel was concerned, and we’re certainly keeping our fingers crossed that Omicron will be a ‘small blip’ rather than a ‘big dip’, just as Singapore’s international travel network was starting to recover.
In the worst case, if vaccine efficacy against severe illness turns out to be significantly poorer against Omicron, we can certainly see Singapore rolling back on some of its existing VTL arrangements in the event of outbreaks.
In the more optimistic scenario if Omicron turns out to be similar to the Delta variant, or even less of a concern, we should be back in gear again before long – back on the road to the original recovery plan.
Let’s see how this plays out.
(Cover Photo: Hamad International Airport)