SINGAPORE - Unvaccinated children up to the age of 12 will now be allowed to travel quarantine-free under a vaccinated travel scheme, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) announced on Monday (Oct 11).
Children can travel on these Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) flights as long as they are accompanied by a vaccinated traveller who meets all requirements, said the CAAS in a statement.
They will also have to take two Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests - one within 48 hours of departure to Singapore and then on arrival. Children aged two and below do not have to take PCR tests.
The announcement comes after the authorities on Sunday announced a week's grace period for differentiated safe management measures based on vaccination.
On Saturday, the Government had announced an expansion of the scheme to nine other countries, including the United States and Britain. Many parents subsequently expressed unhappiness that unvaccinated children could not travel under the VTL.
Asked why the Government decided to relax the rules, Transport Minister S. Iswaran acknowledged the clear desire among many Singaporeans and their families to travel, and said allowing unvaccinated children up to 12 on the VTL "helps to open up a few more possibilities for them".
The initial decision to exclude unvaccinated children was made out of extra caution, he said in an interview with The Straits Times, urging families to take all necessary precautions if they opt to travel and be aware of the differing requirements in countries.
From Oct 19, vaccinated travellers will be able to fly to Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain and the United States.
The scheme will be extended to South Korea from Nov 15. In all, there are 11 countries on the VTL, including Germany and Brunei. Brunei, however, currently does not allow leisure travel.
South Korea also currently does not allow in children who do not qualify for vaccination or those medically unfit to be vaccinated.
The CAAS said the age of the child will be based on the calendar year. For instance, a child born in or after 2009 can enter Singapore under the VTL in 2021.
Urging caution to those who opt to travel, especially with children, Mr Iswaran said: "It's important that we understand the circumstances in the countries you might be considering to visit. It's important that we also appreciate that their requirements and regimes are different and not one size fits all."
"I hope this gives Singaporean families, on the one hand, the option, but I hope it's an option they will exercise with due care," he added.
Asked about the impact of the VTL expansion on Singapore's air hub and tourism industry, Mr Iswaran said the 11 countries accounted for about 10 per cent of Changi Airport's passenger traffic before the pandemic.
"They are among our top 20 trading partners, and they've got sizeable business communities and families here in Singapore. So it's important that we reconnect with them," he added.
He noted that in all, about 3,000 travellers would be able to arrive in Singapore daily - still a far cry from pre-pandemic. " But it's a significant step up from where we are today," he said.
As for re-establishing travel with neighbouring countries, he said: "We continue to be in discussions to find ways to move forward... We will want to move on this when both sides are comfortable and are able to do this in a manner that reassures both sides that it can be done in a safe and efficient way."
The minister called on VTL travellers to cooperate and comply with all rules.
"These are not rules to be gamed. They are important safeguards that we all should observe and comply with so that we can ensure not just our own safety, but also the safety of our front-line workers and our larger community," he said.
Mr Iswaran also described the scheme as a "pathfinder" towards the goal of ensuring international aviation can continue to grow safely and in a manner that gives everyone confidence.
"If we can all work together, then there's a good chance that we can further enhance these vaccinated travel lanes, whether it is in terms of coverage or capacity," he said, adding this will help restore Singapore's reputation as an international aviation hub.
While parents welcomed the news, some said they would hold off on immediate travel plans.
"We are looking forward to travel in the new year, when airlines increase capacity to destinations such as the United Kingdom, and Singapore hopefully opens more VTL destinations like Japan," said Mr Aaron Kong, 41, a consultant and father to a five-year-old son.
Some travel agencies were cautiously optimistic.
"We do not anticipate a large spike in queries for bookings with young children to Europe," said Ms Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Dynasty Travel, who expects families to make plans next year instead.
Ms Seah added that travellers with young children who are not vaccinated "may adopt a more measured wait-and-see approach as more information about the other countries' public health and safety protocols of the destination in question becomes clearer and more available".
"Travellers may also enjoy more options and shorter holidays with young children to countries of closer proximity, such as Hong Kong, Japan and Australia," she said.
Mr Jeremiah Wong, senior marketing communications manager at Chan Brothers Travel, said they had already been receiving enquiries on travel with children before Monday's announcement.
"These travellers will be thrilled to know they now have the opportunity to bring their little ones with them on an overseas holiday," said Mr Wong.
He added that they have seen a surge in enquiries to European destinations in particular, since the VTL scheme was announced.
"They are popular likely for its authentic festive vibes, which will be appealing to families with young children, during the year-end travel period."
Mr Daniel Ng, director of air transport at CAAS, said the 3,000 VTL travellers a day on average include short-term visitors, long-term pass holders as well as Singapore citizens and permanent residents. "We will monitor the Covid-19 incidence rates, observe the demand and adjust the quota if needed," he said.
He added that both Singapore-based and foreign airlines have been invited to operate designated VTL flights, and that they will "announce their plans when they are ready" based on their own commercial considerations.
Separately, Singapore Airlines yesterday announced that it will add VTL flights to its line-up for the year-end holiday season, allowing more North American travellers to enter Singapore quarantine-free.
From Dec 2 to Feb 15, the national carrier will operate twice-weekly VTL flights from Seattle and Vancouver to Singapore.
It will also convert its daily non-stop service from San Francisco to Singapore to a VTL flight, starting on Oct 20. It will continue operating non-VTL flights from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver for customers who are not eligible for the VTL option. Tickets for the Singapore-Vancouver-Seattle service go on sale at noon today.
SIA currently operates VTL flights from Bandar Seri Begawan, Frankfurt and Munich. The additions will expand the SIA group's VTL network to 17 cities, including Seoul, London and New York.