Australia eyes digital Covid-19 vaccine passport with S'pore

Australia hopes to set up a travel bubble that would include Singapore. PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG, AFP

SYDNEY - Australia's Tourism Minister plans to travel to Singapore to discuss the creation of a digital vaccine passport system that would enable a travel bubble between the two countries by the middle of the year.

In an announcement that has raised the hopes of Australia's ailing tourism sector, Mr Dan Tehan said on Monday (March 15) the country hopes to set up a travel bubble that would include Singapore and New Zealand, and perhaps other places such as Fiji.

Mr Tehan said Singapore has handled the Covid-19 pandemic in an "exemplary fashion" and is a strong potential partner for Australia's first two-way travel bubble, which would eliminate the need for quarantine. He said he wants to travel to Singapore within the next two months to discuss the proposal.

"If we can continue to get the vaccine roll-out right here in Australia, they continue to do what they're doing so well there with their vaccine roll-out in Singapore, I'm optimistic that we might be able to get something up and running by the middle of the year," he told Channel Nine.

The key would be to ensure that travellers have valid vaccine credentials, he noted.

Mr Tehan said Australia wants to work with Singapore on developing a digital vaccine passport that will prove that a traveller has been vaccinated. "We really want that digital vaccination passport up and running, operating, and in a way that we know that we can trust it," he said.

Australia imposed strict curbs on foreign travellers early last year and has also banned Australians from travelling overseas without an exemption from the government. This has had a heavy impact on the tourism and international student sectors.

The government is keen to open up borders as soon as possible but is also facing pressure to ensure that Australia remains effectively free of Covid-19. Most of the country has been free of locally transmitted cases for weeks or months and is operating as normal. In the past four weeks, there have been 10 locally transmitted cases, but no broader outbreak.

Australia earlier opened a one-way travel bubble for people from New Zealand, but this has been suspended several times due to outbreaks of Covid-19 clusters in New Zealand.

Canberra is now looking to potentially open its first two-way travel bubble with Singapore.

Media reports suggested that Canberra is also looking to allow travellers from other countries to complete their 14-day quarantine period in Singapore before travelling on to Australia. However, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has said it is not discussing "the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub" with Australia.

"Singapore is currently in discussions with Australia on the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates and resumption of travel, with priority for students and business travellers," MFA said on Sunday. It added: "We are not in discussion on the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub."

Mr Tehan did not explicitly comment last Thursday on the possibility of a quarantine centre. His office referred The Straits Times to an interview with Channel Seven, in which he referred to Singapore's current practice of testing incoming passengers on arrival.

"They (Singapore) have already got some steps in place," he said. "This would be something that we'll have as part of those discussions, but that would be the ideal scenario."

In 2019, Australia had more travel to and from Singapore than with any other city. Almost 6.4 million passengers went between the countries on more than 24,700 flights.

But Australia's slow start in vaccinations may pose a difficulty to creating the travel bubble with Singapore by July. Health officials admitted last week that initial plans to vaccinate the bulk of the country's population by October may not be met and that some Australians may only have had their first dose by then.

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