SINGAPORE - Singapore's plan to pilot leisure travel for those vaccinated against Covid-19 - starting with Germany - has given cheer to travel-starved residents who have been kept at home by the coronavirus pandemic for more than a year.
The quarantine-free travel lanes for vaccinated passengers going to and coming from Germany and Brunei from Sept 8 will be closely watched by the rest of the world to glean lessons from the successes - or missteps - of Singapore's calibrated reopening.
Following the announcement of the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme on Thursday (Aug 19), Germany shot up among trending topics on Twitter and "Germany Covid cases" became one of the top 20 Google searches in Singapore.
"It is remarkable how the VTL has also brought Singapore into the news in Germany," Dr Norbert Riedel, German Ambassador to Singapore, told The Straits Times.
"My fellow Germans have a very positive image of Singapore and the achievements of its people, and I am sure that Singaporeans will be welcomed with an open mind and cheerful spirit."
He added: "Singapore remains the hub to the Asean region and thus an essential entry point for the EU (European Union). Both organisations depend on connectivity and trade in order to move successfully into the post-pandemic world."
While Singaporeans are excited at the prospect of being able to travel again, they are also concerned about whether it is sufficiently safe and worth the risks and hassle of Covid-19 testing.
ST lays out the facts and feedback from the ground to help you make an informed travel decision.
Nearly 60 per cent of the German population have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 with shots from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or Oxford-AstraZeneca.
Dr Riedel stressed that Germany's strategy towards containing the coronavirus and learning to live with it is aligned with Singapore's own policies.
"In its fight against Covid-19, Germany follows the very same path as Singapore: Vaccination is key," he said. "We have yet to reach Singapore's extraordinary level. But at 60 per cent and growing, I see Germany well-prepared to welcome visitors from abroad in a safe environment."
The ambassador said Germany is experiencing an increase in infections, albeit "at a low level". But this has not been accompanied by rising hospitalisations, which is "an encouraging sign that we are on the right track for the new normal".
"In terms of virus precautions, Singaporeans will face a setting similar to back at home," he added.
Germany's seven-day moving average of new Covid-19 infections stood at around 6,200 on Friday. This was about 49 cases per 100,000 people, up from 25 a week earlier, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the nation's disease control agency.
There are wide regional differences, though, given the country's vast land mass. For example, the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia had an infection rate of 83 cases per 100,000 people, while rates in the central states of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt were below 13.
Only 2.8 per cent of beds in Germany's intensive care units were being occupied by Covid-19 patients, the RKI said. Overall death rate from the disease is fairly low, too, at around 2.4 per cent.
Germany boasts some 2,000 hospitals, with its best - the Heidelberg University Hospital - ranking 22nd in the world. The cost of in-patient treatment for each hospital case was €5,088 (S$8,100) on average, the Federal Statistical Office said this year, referencing data from 2019.
Since Germany's first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Munich in Jan 27, 2020, it has seen more than 3.8 million infections, and nearly 92,000 deaths, overwhelmingly among elderly people above 70.
Virus containment measures may differ from state to state, with the authorities regularly reviewing the outbreak situation in each area. The benchmark for imposing restrictions on public and social life was 100 cases per 100,000 people, but other factors - including hospital admission rates - are now also being taken into account.
More recently, uniform nationwide rules were introduced, known as the "3G" health pass system. Essentially, they require people to show proof that they have been vaccinated or tested or have recovered from the virus ("geimpft, getestet oder genesen" in German) to gain entry into many public venues, such as restaurants, theatres, salons, gyms and churches.
Germany is also ending free Covid-19 testing for most in October to incentivise more people to get inoculated. But children, as well as people who for health reasons cannot be vaccinated, can still get tested for free.
Similar to Singapore's requirements, face masks must be worn indoors, on public transport and in crowded outdoor spaces. But Germany has stricter mask requirements - only surgical, N95, KN95 or FFP2 masks are allowed. These are typically readily available in pharmacies, supermarkets and general stores.
Penalties for not being appropriately masked or maintaining social distancing differ among states. Offenders typically face fines ranging from €50 to €250.
There is digitised contact tracing, too, with the RKI issuing an official open-source app, called the Corona-Warn-App.
"I feel that Germany has managed Covid-19 well compared with other European countries; it's obvious by just looking at the numbers," said Singaporean Leeza Yeo, 50, a culinary instructor who lives with her German husband in Frankfurt.
"I feel safe. Covid-19 here seems under control. Germans are very disciplined people who abide by the rules, not that different from Singaporeans."
Ms Andriana Ngaman, a teacher at an international school teacher and also a Singaporean, said that Covid-19 restrictions are largely accepted by society, though there are still the occasional demonstrations by those who do not agree with the government's policies.
"Police presence has been stepped up to ensure requirements are adhered to," said Ms Andriana, 46, who lives in Heidelberg with her German husband and two young children. "Not wearing a mask or not following social distancing measures seem to rarely be a reason for police involvement, though."
Another Singaporean, Ms Sim Chi Yin, found the rising number of recent Covid-19 infections around the world, including in Germany, "quite worrying".
"Overall, measures here are much more relaxed than in Singapore… There's a different attitude about it here: It's more about living with a pervasive virus," said Ms Sim, 42, an artist who lives in Berlin with her Canadian husband and toddler son. "We try to be outdoors mostly if we go out, and we have our own hand-washing and sanitising rules at home."
She added: "I think, in the end, we will have to learn to live with this virus and adapt to having it in our lives. Time cannot keep standing still."
Most Singaporeans living in Germany expressed delight and relief that they can finally return home or have their loved ones visit without having to serve out a lengthy quarantine. There are more than 2,000 Singaporeans living in Germany.
"It's great news! I save not only on the cost of SHN (stay-home notice) at dedicated hotel premises, but also the 14 days' quarantine time," said freelance writer Cindy Tong, 44, who lives with her German husband in Stuttgart.
"It is difficult for us to visit Singapore for more than a week each time, so every day counts… But with this new travel lane, a short trip back home can be something we can look forward to again."
Ms Yeo, the culinary instructor, said she was "thrilled and thankful". She is planning to fly back to Singapore on Sept 15 with some of her German friends.
Ms Andriana, the teacher, is glad but said she was unlikely to use the VTL as her two children, aged nine and 11, are not vaccinated. Germany offers vaccinations for children aged at least 12.
"I might come alone," she said. "But it won't be cheap due to the cost of the four PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests required, the hotel I would have to pay for while waiting for a negative result, and the special VTL flights."
A PCR test in Singapore costs $160, according to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
Singaporeans whom ST spoke to said they found the initial German response to Covid-19 "a bit slow" compared with what they were used to in Singapore. But they agreed that the situation improved rapidly once the general populace started taking it more seriously.
"The Germans have massive resources at their disposal compared with their neighbours, and so could tide over this period somewhat better than most other countries," said Mr Mark Cai, 33, a management consultant in Frankfurt.
"Speed and coherency in Germany's policymaking can sometimes be lacking, because it's not always easy for the federal government of the different states to reach consensus."
"It's easy to be critical, especially when comparing Germany with Singapore and how swiftly we responded," Ms Tong, the freelance writer, said. "But we're also much smaller and we don't have open borders. The Schengen area makes enforcement so much more difficult."
The 26 European countries in the Schengen area have removed all border controls to ensure the free movement of their people within it. Germany currently institutes compulsory quarantine for travellers from some Schengen regions with higher risk for infection, including parts of Greece, France and Spain.
Relating her experience travelling to the Italian Alps with her husband this month, Ms Tong said: "There was no inspection at all. Perhaps they only do random checks. We just zipped past the border into Austria, then into Italy. And the tourist areas around Lake Garda in Italy were crawling with people, all maskless."
Ms Tong's observations raise concerns that without rigorous border checks, people who travel outside Germany could get infected and then pass the virus to tourists within the country.
But requiring that all passengers in the new quarantine-free travel lane between Singapore and Germany be fully vaccinated significantly lowers the likelihood of travellers falling severely ill even if they do catch the virus.
The strict testing regimen before leaving Germany and upon arrival in Singapore also minimises the risks of having Covid-19 slip through the borders undetected.
Moreover, passengers utilising the VTL must have remained only in Germany or Singapore for the last 21 days. That is, visiting other countries in the three weeks during one's stay in Germany would disqualify them from quarantine exemption upon their return to Singapore.
Some Germans are sharing Singaporeans' excitement over the new travel lane.
"Singapore is definitely a more attractive travel option for me now," said German entrepreneur Florian Balke, 34. "Singapore has great standing among German tourists as a safe and clean destination."
"China, Taiwan and Singapore are on my travel bucket list as some of the people I work with are located there, and it's important for me to have a chance to meet them face to face at least once," added Mr Balke, who runs a production company as well as a ramen restaurant in Berlin.
For Singaporeans planning to visit Germany, Ambassador Riedel has some holiday tips: "With cycling having become a popular hobby in Singapore during the pandemic, exploring Germany by bike would be an interesting option.
"There's so much to discover, with nearly 50 Unesco World Cultural Heritage sites as well as opportunities to get to know some of our lesser-known cities."