Singapore can afford to relax its travel testing restrictions: Experts

Professor Dale Fisher noted that imported cases are a tiny fraction of daily Covid-19 case count in Singapore. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Experts are calling for the authorities to relax travel restrictions to Singapore, saying the Omicron variant has peaked and imported cases are contributing little to the Covid-19 case count.

Speaking at the Covid-19 Restrictions: When can they be eased further? discussion hosted by The Straits Times, the experts say it is time to do away with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and possibly even antigen rapid tests (ARTs) for vaccinated travellers entering the country.

The discussion on Tuesday (March 15), held in SPH Studios, featured Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore Teo Yik Ying; Professor Dale Fisher, a senior infectious diseases consultant at the National University Hospital; and executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) Leo Yee Sin.

It was moderated by ST's senior health correspondent Salma Khalik.

Prof Fisher noted that imported cases are a tiny fraction of daily Covid-19 case count in Singapore.

As at March 14, the country saw 101 imported cases and 8,941 local cases.

Describing current testing measures required for travel as an "expensive inconvenience which deters travellers", Prof Fisher said easing travel to Singapore will create livelihoods for everyone, from bus operators to cafe owners.

"When you weigh up the social and economic benefits of freeing up this travel, it has value," Prof Fisher said.

Prof Teo said Singapore needs to maintain its strategic advantage as an air hub and should allow anyone who is vaccinated to enter the country instead of relying on vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs).

"Despite all the vaccinated travel lanes, if we look at what is necessary to make use of all that travel opportunities, there's still a lot of testing that's required... and the uncertainty and threat of being positive and asymptomatic and having all your plans messed up is very real."

"So we have to look at it in totality and not be distracted by some of these countries announcing their plans to open up. Are people really travelling as much to those countries?" Prof Teo added.

Thailand opened its borders for quarantine-free travel for vaccinated individuals from Feb 1.

Malaysia will be doing that from April 1. The Philippines opened its borders to vaccinated travellers from Feb 10, and Australia, from Feb 21.

But travellers to those countries are still required to undergo testing.

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A panel of experts, moderated by ST Senior Health Correspondent Salma Khalik discuss the future for safety measures in the face of falling infection numbers.

Said Prof Teo: "If I want to plan a four-day trip to Bali, I actually need to go through three PCR tests and an additional unsupervised ART test."

As for Singapore, there will be an easing of rules from March 15 for all travellers from VTL and low-risk areas.

VTL flight travellers going for Covid-19 PCR swab test at Changi Airport Terminal 1 on Nov 6, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

They will only need to take an unsupervised ART within 24 hours of their arrival into the country.

Prof Leo said even as travel measures are eased, the global and local situations need to be monitored.

"With the current high number of local cases and a milder nature of the Omicron variant, the need for a PCR test is less critical."

"However, we need to monitor the situation and respond accordingly depending on the relative number of local cases in comparison to global cases and the virulence of the future variant of concern," Prof Leo added.

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