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The Air Travel Bubbles (ATB) will play a “key role” in the safe opening of Singapore’s borders this year, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates on Friday (March 5).

According to Ong, he expects to see more countries prepared to forge ATBs with Singapore, as vaccinations bring down Covid-19 infection rates worldwide.

Recovery for the aviation sector

According to Ong, it is not realistic to “expect a V-shape recovery for the aviation sector” this year given that there continues to be much uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We may have a plan, but this virus has no plan. And it does not observe any rules. It is driven by an instinct to dominate the world. To do so, it is transmitted without symptoms, it is mutating,” said Ong.

However, he said that there will likely be some re-opening of borders and some recovery in the aviation sector, given the rollout of vaccines, and the realisation of governments around the world that countries cannot keep their borders closed perpetually.

“As I explained to the House before, what kills travel is quarantine and Stay-Home Notice. Very few people would want to travel abroad if they know they have to go through a lengthy isolation,” said Ong.

Hence, in order to revive aviation, these have to be replaced by other methods that can also substantially reduce the risk of transmission.

A few strategies were also highlighted by Ong.

Covid-19 testing and “bubble wrapping”

Firstly, according to Ong, Covid-19 testing is the key to re-opening borders. He said that currently, Singapore can perform more than 60,000 tests per day, allowing the nation to detect infections early and minimise onward transmission.

MOT is also trialing “bubble wrapping” short-term business travellers, via the [email protected] programme.

These business travellers will be on controlled itineraries and remain in restricted premises while having their meetings in Singapore, in order to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 to the community.

The programme, which was launched on Feb. 18, 2021, expects to receive its first guests in March.

MOT will continue to negotiate for new Air Travel Bubbles

In addition, Ong said that it is important to recognise that travellers from certain places are safe, as they have “successfully controlled the virus”.

Singapore has extended standing invitations to certain countries, unilaterally opening its borders to places such as Australia, New Zealand, Brunei and China.

“So far, this scheme has not led to any increase in our local transmission,” said Ong.

The MOT will also continue negotiating for new Air Travel Bubbles (ATBs), which will enable travel between Singapore and selected places based on mutually agreed conditions.

Negotiations with Hong Kong have already been concluded, and it will be launched when conditions are right.

“We have not given up the idea,” said Ong.

Most registered frontline workers have received at least a dose of Covid-19 vaccine

Vaccinations will also play an important role in re-opening Singapore’s borders, as it will boost confidence for places to allow travel without the need for isolation in the near future.

For example, Ong said that 92 per cent of registered maritime and aviation frontliners have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 85 per cent have received both doses.

As more scientific data became available, Ong said that Singapore will be able to ascertain the extent to which vaccination reduces transmission of the virus.

“And this will enable us to allow vaccinated individuals to travel with fewer restrictions, perhaps even without SHN,” said Ong.

This will require a system of certification, and Singapore is currently having ongoing discussions on the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates with potential partners.

According to Ong, as vaccinations bring down infection rates worldwide, more countries will be prepared to forge ATBs with Singapore.

Singapore will also identify places with low to moderate infection rates, and combine vaccination and tests to open up travel corridors.

“We will do our best to make these arrangements bilateral, so Singaporeans can travel outwards too,” said Ong.

Top image via Lawrence Wong/Facebook..