SINGAPORE - Families are now weighing the pros and cons of an overseas trip this year-end after receiving unexpected good news on Oct 11.
That was when the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore announced that unvaccinated children up to age 12 can now travel without quarantine under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme.
The relaxed rules cater to the demand from families who want to holiday abroad, Transport Minister S. Iswaran told the media. But health experts say parents should make an informed decision and take precautionary measures.
Unvaccinated kids born in 2009 or later can visit nine countries from Oct 19 - Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain and the United States.
South Korea's VTL with Singapore starts on Nov 15, but it currently bars kids who are ineligible for vaccinations or those who are medically unfit to get their Covid-19 shots. Children below 12 in Singapore are not eligible for vaccination yet.
Children travelling under the VTL scheme must be accompanied by a vaccinated traveller who meets the requisite criteria. They also have to take two Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction tests, one before their departure to Singapore and another when they arrive here. Babies aged two and below are exempt.
However, parents must assess their own risk appetites before travelling, says Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from Rophi Clinic.
The current group of VTL countries are in the northern hemisphere, where winter is approaching. "The Covid-19 virus lives better in the cold. In other words, the risk of disease acquisition rises with cold weather," he says.
"But with so many cases in Singapore and elsewhere, does it really matter? We know that in all likelihood, we will all get infected eventually, in Singapore."
He says that "kids do well 99.99 per cent of the time", but adds that "there is still a risk". Parents should therefore apply the same rules abroad as they do here, by wearing masks and practising social distancing.
Dr Kenneth Lyen, a consultant paediatrician at Lyen Children's Clinic, says: "People in many northern hemisphere countries do not wear masks, but I would suggest that Singaporeans wear masks to reduce the risk of catching Covid-19."
He advises adults to take their flu shots before going on holiday as it is flu season and carry medicines suitable for children in case of fever, cough and runny noses. He also recommends that they pack antigen rapid test kits.
"I would carry one in case any family member develops fever or respiratory symptoms when overseas. Some countries' Accident and Emergency Departments are overcrowded and you wait for hours before getting seen," he adds.
Some parents are adopting a wait-and-see approach. Engineer Noorazman Noor'ain, 42, says: "I expect many people will rush to travel, but we are not in a hurry. Of course we miss travelling, even to Johor Baru."
Before the pandemic, he and his wife had travelled extensively with their three children, aged 10 to 13, to countries such as Kenya, Vietnam, Norway, Britain, France and Japan.
Pre-Covid-19, he had planned to go on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June last year with his eldest son, Ahsan.
"Perhaps if there is an opportunity, we will head there. But we will wait until safe travelling procedures are more established," he says. "I am an employee providing essential services, so I need to be a bit more cautious to ensure I am healthy."
Others, like Mrs Shireena Shroff Manchharam, 39, have already made travel plans. She will be leaving in mid-December for a multi-city European holiday with her husband and two children, aged seven and 11.
As they had booked their flight to Germany before the new VTL rules, her family will serve their quarantine at home when they return.
"We decided to leave in December because we are now less afraid of the virus and Singapore itself has so many cases and quarantine orders," says Mrs Manchharam, an image consultant and life coach.
"We will choose cities with fewer tourists and crowds, as we don't want to put ourselves at a higher risk. We will also stay up to date on protocols in the different countries."
She adds: "We haven't left Singapore since December 2019 so it's good to have that spark of excitement and adventure again with our kids."
Artist and illustrator Carlyn Law, 46, left Singapore early this month with her husband to visit his family in Italy, whom they have not seen since May 2019. The month-long trip is also a holiday for their six-year-old son before he starts Primary 1 next year.
"When we left Singapore, Germany and Brunei were in the VTL. We were hoping that by the time we came back in early November, we could do home quarantine," she says.
Ms Law posts trip updates on her Instagram and says "Italy is back to normal and very safe for travel".
She and her husband, Mr Luigi Artiaco, 42, who works in wine sales, made sure to apply for the Green Pass, which allows vaccinated people to dine in restaurants and attend public events in Europe.
"The Italian government ensures that the population is vaccinated (85 per cent now) and people are taking the necessary precautions by wearing masks in public places and sanitising their hands," she adds.
How to have a safer holiday with kids
What should you do before, during and after your first family trip abroad since the pandemic? Here are some tips from Dr Chan Si Min, head and senior consultant from the Division of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the Khoo Teck Puat - National University Children's Medical Institute in the National University Hospital.
Before the trip
1. Check for updates on the Covid-19 situation at your destination, such as a rise in case numbers, specific local areas of outbreak and vaccination status in the area.
2. Be aware of restrictions and regulations, including mask requirements and entry to restaurants, attractions and large group events.
3. Ensure that you have adequate travel insurance to cover Covid-19-related medical expenses and travel delays.
4. Those above six months old should get the flu vaccination to reduce the risk of falling ill with influenza, which causes symptoms similar to Covid-19.
5. Pack supplies that may not be easily available overseas, like masks, hand sanitisers and alcohol wipes. Also take along medical supplies such as paracetamol, anti-histamines, a thermometer and an oximeter.
6. Find out how to access healthcare services like local clinics and emergency departments there, in case anyone is unwell.
7. Prepare contingency plans including where to stay and what to do if the trip has to be extended when someone is infected with Covid-19 and cannot take a return flight until he has recovered.
8. Prepare vaccination documents for each traveller.
9. Find out where to go and how to book the pre-departure swab before the return flight to Singapore.
10. Inform your child's school about your holiday.
During the trip
1. Practise hand hygiene and wear masks.
2. Avoid large crowds, especially indoors.
After the trip
1. Monitor each family member for symptoms.
2. You may want to avoid frequent social mixing for seven to 10 days on your return home.