Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong asked the Minister for Transport in light of the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 (a) how does the Ministry review its border control measures for air travel with all countries as well as Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) and non-VTL travel with Malaysia, with the view to striking a meaningful balance between allowing travel to continue while minimising the risk of COVID-19 spread during travel; and (b) what measures can be expected from the Ministry in the coming weeks.
Mr Leon Perera asked the Minister for Transport (a) what are the reasons for limiting Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) flights to only specific airlines; and (b) whether the Ministry will consider including more airlines, especially low-cost carriers, as well as more flights during festive periods like Chinese New Year and Hari Raya, to ensure that lower-cost options are available to those who need to travel.
The Minister for Transport (Mr S Iswaran): Sir, over the past two years, MOT and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) have worked closely with MOH and other Government agencies to reopen our borders in a careful and calibrated manner.
Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Mr Dennis Tan have asked how we have reviewed our border measures in light of the Omicron variant, including what global and domestic indicators we monitor to inform our measures. Essentially, it is a composite of both domestic and external factors. Let me elaborate in the context of what we have done over the past several months.
In September last year, with a substantial proportion of the Singapore population vaccinated, we launched the Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs). Two months later, on 26 November, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron as a “Variant of Concern”. Then, scientists around the world were still trying to ascertain Omicron’s transmissibility and virulence relative to Delta, and the efficacy of existing vaccines against this new variant. As a precautionary move, based on reports of the spread of Omicron in Sub-saharan Africa, we restricted the entry and transit of non-residents from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from 28 November; and from Ghana, Malawi and Nigeria from 5 December. Residents returning from these countries were subjected to a 10-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) at dedicated facilities. We halted the expansion of the VTL scheme and deferred the launch of the already-announced VTLs to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We also decided to maintain the daily quota for VTL (Air) travellers at 10,000, rather than increase it to 15,000 as we had earlier intended.
On 22 December, given the rapid and global spread of the Omicron variant, we froze the sale of new VTL flight and bus tickets for entry into Singapore from 23 December 2021 to 20 January 2022. We also imposed a 50% limit on the daily number of VTL travellers from 21 January this year.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan has asked whether this freeze was necessary given our approach of living with COVID-19. As I have outlined, the freeze was part of a series of calibrated moves informed by the latest public health risk assessment as well as developments around the world. It was essential to balance the need to manage the risk of imported Omicron cases while minimising disruption to travellers who had already made VTL bookings to enter Singapore.
Ms Foo Mee Har had asked earlier about the breakdown of imported cases for Omicron. In summary, about 2,600 cases were imported. The key sources were the United States at 16%, United Kingdom at 16% and India at 11%. This broadly corresponds to the VTL traveller volume and as most Members will appreciate, it also is influenced by the incidence of Omicron in these countries. I would add that the composition of this figure – less than 10% were actually short-term visitors. So, the bulk are actually Singapore Citizens (SCs), Permanent Residents (PRs) and long-term visit pass holders who are returning to Singapore from overseas.
Ms Poh Li San, Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Seah Kian Peng asked about the additional enhanced measures for VTL travellers. In the first week of December 2021, in consultation with MOH, we introduced additional supervised self-administered antigen rapid tests (ARTs) for VTL travellers on days three and seven after arrival. This is on top of the pre-departure and on-arrival test requirements. VTL travellers were also required to undergo self-administered ARTs on days two, four, five and six of their arrival before going about their daily activities. Those who test positive are required to undergo a confirmatory PCR test. So, basically, pre-departure, on arrival and then from day two to day seven, there is daily ART self-administered, but on days three and seven, they have to do it under supervision. And these have to be reported and if there’s a positive ART result, then they go for a PCR test.
Collectively, these adjustments to our border and other measures have allowed us time to study and better understand the Omicron variant, to strengthen our defences including our healthcare capacity, and to get more people vaccinated and boosted, as we have heard. We will continue to work closely with MOH to regularly review our border measures. As part of learning to live with the virus and its variants, we must press on with our efforts to restore our connectivity with the world while safeguarding public health. Our goal is to restore quarantine-free travel with more countries and regions as allowed for by the public health assessment.
Mr Saktiandi Supaat asked about the additional measures to protect airport workers from Omicron. Since 2 December 2021, we have enhanced the personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing protocols. All frontline airport workers are now placed on a seven-day PCR Rostered Routine Testing (RRT) regime. For higher-risk frontline airport workers, an employer-supervised ART was introduced on the third day in addition to their seven-day PCR RRT. Further, all Singapore aircrew arriving from affected regions are required to undergo an on-arrival PCR test and post-arrival PCR tests on days three and seven. These protocols will be adjusted, as they have in the past, in accordance with the latest public health risk assessments.
Mr Saktiandi and Dr Tan Wu Meng asked about airflow and COVID-19 transmissibility at the airport. Since the onset of the pandemic, Changi Airport Group (CAG) has progressively upgraded the air ventilation system at the airport. For instance, CAG has upgraded the filters in the air-conditioning and mechanical ventilation (ACMV) system to Merv-14 filters, which are able to remove about 85% of particles of 0.3 to 1.0 micron in size. In other words, they can filter out particles smaller than the size of a respiratory particle containing the COVID-19 virus. With the emergence of the more transmissible Delta variant in May last year, CAAS, CAG, MOH, NEA and the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) conducted an airflow study to identify spaces at the airport where ventilation and filtration could be further stepped up. Since then, 350 High Efficiency Particulate Absorbing (HEPA) portable air purifiers have been installed throughout the airport terminals at locations such as staff canteens, rest areas and health screening stations. These HEPA air purifiers are also used in hospitals and they help to reduce the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19. Since September last year, CAG has also installed Ultraviolet-C (UV-C) sanitation equipment in the airport terminal air-conditioning systems to provide an additional layer of defence.
Mr Dennis Tan, Mr Leon Perera, Mr Saktiandi Supaat and Mr Shawn Huang asked about upcoming VTL moves and the outlook for our air and maritime hubs in 2022.
Our maritime hub has weathered the COVID-19 crisis relatively well, with container throughput at our port likely to reach an all-time high in 2021. Maritime businesses also continued to establish and expand operations here. We expect the favourable outlook for trade and shipping to continue in 2022. According to industry projections, global seaborne trade is expected to grow 3.5% in 2022, slightly below the estimate of 3.6% last year. We are working with our tripartite partners to seize these opportunities, continue growing our maritime sector and create more good jobs for Singaporeans.
On the other hand, air travel is expected to take several years to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Notwithstanding this, we remain confident of the long-term potential of air travel and are resolutely committed to working with Changi Airport Group and airline partners to rebuild and reclaim Singapore’s status as an international air hub. Compared to 3% at the start of 2021, passenger traffic at Changi increased to about 15% of pre-COVID-19 levels by the end of December 2021, largely aided by our VTL schemes. A study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Oxford Economics has projected international passenger volume at the end of 2022 to recover to about 55% of 2019 levels, which is up from about 20% at the end of last year. Therefore, barring unexpected setbacks like Omicron, we anticipate further recovery in 2022.
To Mr Leon Perera’s question, we do not restrict any airline from applying to operate VTL flights; the overall quota of inbound VTL travellers is allocated to airlines based on the plans they submit to CAAS. Low-cost carriers, such as Scoot, AirAsia and Jetstar Asia, already operate VTL flights from Malaysia. Scoot also operates VTL flights from Thailand and the Republic of Korea, Australia and Germany. Mr Perera also asked if we would allow more VTL flights during festive periods. You have heard from the MTF and also in today’s session in Parliament, we closely monitor the demand for VTL flights and will regularly review the VTL quotas, always taking into consideration the prevailing public health assessment.
Mr Shawn Huang asked about our plans for the Singapore Airshow in 2022. The Singapore Airshow is one of the world’s leading airshows that brings together aerospace and defence leaders and key decision makers to conduct business and forge partnerships. The event organiser, Experia Events Pte Ltd, has announced that Singapore Airshow 2022 will go ahead from 15 to 18 February, for trade visitors only. To ensure the success of Singapore Airshow 2022, our Government agencies are working closely with the organiser on the public health protocols to facilitate its safe and smooth execution, including ensuring the safe entry of international trade attendees and safe management measures at the event.
As part of living with COVID-19, we must shift to a new setting that will enable us to stay connected to the world. It is essential that we press on with our mission to reopen our borders. The VTL scheme is a useful pathfinder for us to establish, test and build confidence in safe reopening to vaccinated travellers. Ultimately, we want to work towards quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travellers.
Singapore’s global connectivity is critical to our economic competitiveness and the livelihoods of our people. It underpins our status as an international business centre and a global trading hub. Over the past two years, the Government has provided significant support to preserve core capabilities in this strategic sector and to help them tide over this crisis. We will continue to work closely with our aviation stakeholders to rebuild a safe and sustainable Changi aviation hub.
Ministry of Transport
10 January 2022