This week Singapore has made the latest expansion to its Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme, which provides quarantine-free travel to the country for fully vaccinated travellers based on their country of origin, travel history and negative COVID-19 status.
With 32 countries soon part of the scheme, almost all of which are unilateral arrangements, the programme is starting to look a little ‘long in the tooth’, especially when compared with the latest quarantine relaxations in the region, which are allowing fully vaccinated visitors from around the world.
The VTL’s days are officially numbered
In mid-February, Singapore’s Heath Minister Ong Ye Kung outlined the plan to transition away from the VTL in his opening remarks during a press conference of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, confirming that imported infections, at around 1% of daily cases, “no longer have a material impact on our epidemic situation”.
That will ultimately lead Singapore to pivot away from testing and Stay Home Notice (SHN) requirements, towards simply ensuring travellers are vaccinated and boosted.
“This will require quite a fundamental change to our travel schemes.
“Instead of having Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) with selected countries that we think are low risk, we should actually allow SHN-free travel for vaccinated travellers or fully-vaccinated travellers, from all countries.”
Mr Ong went on to say that Singapore’s health risk categories for countries and regions, previously split into four groups and since simplified into three, “will no longer be relevant when we move to a vaccinated traveller system”.
That will ultimately bring Singapore in line with some other neighbours, most of which have had strict border policies during the pandemic.
The Philippines, for example, now welcomes fully vaccinated travellers from 157 countries on its visa-free list, but it doesn’t care which countries these people originate in or have visited during the last few days.
Similarly Australia now welcomes all fully vaccinated travelers who obtain a tourist or work-related eVisa, without considering their travel history or asking them to arrive on specific flights.
Future quarantine-free openings on a similar basis are expected in Vietnam and Indonesia by mid-March, so it is logical for Singapore to now move away from its VTL concept rather than get left behind, having effectively been ‘travel pioneers’ in the region up to now.
What level of pre-departure and post-arrival testing will be retained remains to be seen (the Philippines and some Australian states don’t have post-arrival tests, for example).
Longer term, let’s hope for some simplification here also, with Ong saying “we should actually emphasise less on SHN and tests on travellers, but more on ensuring they are fully vaccinated and boosted”.
When will it happen?
Singapore is still seeing record COVID-19 infection numbers due to the Omicron wave, and so logically the government does not want to shift away from its VTL travel scheme just yet.
Instead Minister Ong confirmed that this would happen once the latest wave is on the decline.
“We should make this transition, not now, but after the Omicron wave has peaked and started to subside.”
Has Omicron peaked in Singapore already, you may ask?
It’s still a little early to say, but based on the seven-day average of new confirmed cases it does appear as though the wave has started to plateau, at around 3,300 per day per million population.
If it is indeed the peak, that’s not too dissimilar to the highest levels recently seen in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, both of which have now fallen substantially in declines that took around a month.
The reproduction (R) rate is also showing a steady decline in Singapore, now standing at around 1, which suggests no growth or decline.
Hopefully this trend continues and with an R rate moving to less than 1 in the weeks ahead, the peak will be past us and Minister Ong’s criteria for moving away from the VTL concept will then be met, as the wave subsides.
We should therefore hopefully see some movement on this policy, in our opinion, by late March or into April this year.
What will it mean?
The VTL concept probably won’t disappear completely overnight, with Minister Ong confirming that instead of making an “abrupt change” the country would “make this transition in steps”.
Ultimately though Singapore is going to ditch the idea that a traveller’s country of origin and movement history in the last seven days has much relevance any more, instead focusing on protection through vaccination, and potentially recent infection or booster doses.
“We want the traveller to be vaccinated and protected, rather than the country or region’s infection rate to be low”
Needless to say, this will be great news for travel.
Ultimately, once the vaccinated traveller system is in place (inevitable future acronym to be confirmed!), those who could travel to and from Singapore before COVID-19 will be able to do so from around the world on any flight, provided they have been fully vaccinated against the virus and are up to date with their booster doses.
This will do away with the complex and sometimes costly restriction to take designated VTL flights to Singapore, allowing airlines to restore services based on travel demand and border openings in other countries.
For short-term visitors, the Vaccinated Travel Pass will probably remain in place, since this provides Singapore with an easy way to verify fully vaccinated status for those who had their jabs overseas, but with country restrictions gone, so should the designated flight concept.
Singapore’s VTL programme has served it fairly well in the last six months or so, growing from a small list to now include over 30 countries with designated non-stop flights to Changi.
Relaxations to the scheme have also simplified the testing process, and most recently travel across Europe in the last seven days no longer affects your eligibility to take a quarantine-free flight before travelling under the programme to Singapore.
However, with simpler border relaxations in other countries, including those in the immediate region, Singapore will logically ditch the concept in favour of simply regarding a traveller’s vaccination status, not their travel history or origin point.
This will also do away with the annoying designated VTL flight issue, which has kept fares high and redemptions limited due to the capacity caps.
Fundamentally we hope a transition to the vaccinated traveller scheme will make trips a lot closer to pre-COVID times, simplifying planning, reducing costs and increasing options for Singapore travellers as borders continue to open globally.
Let’s hope for some further news on this in the next month or two.
(Cover Photo: Shawn Ang)