SINGAPORE - Singapore and Australia will work towards an air travel bubble and both nations will lay the groundwork for resuming two-way travel in a safe and calibrated manner, said the prime ministers of both countries on Thursday (June 10).
Both prime ministers expressed their hope that Singapore students in Australia would be the first to get the opportunity to travel from this arrangement so that they can continue their studies, which have been disrupted by Covid-19 travel restrictions. They also said that such a move involving students could be a good opportunity to test the systems, before widening such travel arrangements.
They were speaking to reporters after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on Thursday at the Istana for the sixth Australia-Singapore Annual Leaders' Meeting.
This is the first official visit by a foreign leader to Singapore since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Mr Morrison's second stop after New Zealand last month.
At a joint press conference after their meeting, Mr Lee said they discussed the fight against Covid-19 and resuming travel between the two countries.
"We discussed how two-way travel between Singapore and Australia can eventually resume, in a safe and calibrated manner, when both sides are ready," he said.
Mr Lee added that there is a need to prepare the infrastructure and processes for such travel.
"And it starts with mutual recognition of health and vaccination certificates, possibly in a digital form. When all the preparations are ready, then we can start small with an air travel bubble to build confidence on both sides."
Echoing Mr Lee, Mr Morrison said that while there is some time before Singapore and Australia can open up the air travel bubble, the two countries are working on putting systems in place to do so.
The leaders also acknowledged the importance of open borders to the post-pandemic recovery.
"We really do want to focus on those students coming, as a first wave, a first tranche - as part of the exercise of piloting how these systems can work most effectively when we get to the next phase," said Mr Morrison.
PM Lee said that he raised this matter with Mr Morrison specifically because "quite a number" of Singaporeans study in Australia and there is urgency for them to go back to study, especially those who have got clinical attachments or postings.
Officials from both sides are now at work discussing the air travel bubble and this includes talk about mutually recognising health and vaccination certificates, as well as preparing the pre-conditions and infrastructure for such an arrangement, said Mr Lee.
Vaccination and Covid-19 transmission rates will also be part of discussions pertaining to the air travel bubble, and PM Lee noted that both countries are making good and steady progress in their national vaccination programmes.
"Once the majority of the population is vaccinated, it becomes much easier for us to contemplate these openings," he said.
Mr Morrison added: "Singapore is the first country outside of New Zealand that Australia would wish to engage in an travel bubble with. And we want to get it right in Singapore, which we know we can do because of the very sophisticated systems that Singapore has," he said.
Australia now has a one-way "travel bubble" with New Zealand, allowing New Zealanders to visit without quarantine, though the scheme has been suspended a number of times in response to coronavirus outbreaks.
Mr Lee noted that Australia and Singapore have similar approaches to keeping the virus out of their populations and keeping their people safe.
Both countries also supported each other strongly to get through the early stages of the pandemic.
Mr Lee pointed out that the health authorities of both nations shared information on the virus and helped to bring each other's citizens home from abroad, especially early in the pandemic when flights were cancelled. Singapore Airlines also maintained passenger and cargo flights to and from Australia throughout the border closures, he said.
The world is now moving into its next phase of the fight against the pandemic, with vaccines becoming prevalent and countries beginning to open up their borders, he added.
"Before Covid-19, many Singaporeans travelled to Australia for business, for holidays and to pursue their education and vice versa. We need to resume these people-to-people flows to maintain our close and excellent bilateral relationship," he said.
Thursday's meeting was the first in-person meeting between PM Lee and Mr Morrison in more than a year.
Under the Singapore-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), the prime ministers of both countries meet annually, but their last meeting was held virtually in March last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Lee said that progress has been made on the CSP's pillars of economics and trade, defence and foreign affairs, science and innovation, people-to-people relations as well as the digital economy, which was added as a fifth pillar last year.
On Thursday, the two countries also signed several important bilateral agreements, including a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on healthcare and health technologies.