4 ways to ensure quarantine-free travel, according to Ong Ye Kung

Mr Ong Ye Kung's suggestions included testing, "bubble wrapping" travellers and vaccinations.
Mr Ong Ye Kung's suggestions included testing, "bubble wrapping" travellers and vaccinations.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Covid-19 testing, vaccination as well as "bubbles" between both persons and countries are some ways to ensure safe travel without the need for quarantine, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (May 6).

This would serve purposes beyond just tourism and holidays for a country like Singapore, he added, pointing out the imperative to keep the Republic connected with the world.

"People's economic investments here; people bringing solutions here; and we distributing these solutions and products to the rest of the world - it's our means of survival," said Mr Ong.

He was speaking at the 50th St Gallen Symposium, live-streamed from the UBS University campus in Singapore, during a plenary session that also included Swiss federal councillor Karin Keller-Sutter, Canada's ambassador to China Dominic Barton, and German ambassador to the United Nations Christoph Heusgen.

Mr Ong related the "stark" feedback aired at an international chamber's dialogue he had attended, with international investors in Singapore expressing unhappiness over being unable to join their families during the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons, because of factors such as the Republic's 14- to 21-day long quarantine requirements upon their return.

The investors had said: "And I'm meeting people through Zoom… I'm starting to question why I need to be here."

He had four suggestions to overcome this "serious issue" - and to mitigate travel risks while replacing quarantine measures.

First, testing to detect Covid-19 in individuals before they infect others.

Second, "bubble wrapping" travellers to prevent them from moving around freely - for their safety.

Mr Ong said the Connect @ Changi building, launched in February to host in-person meetings between short-term business travellers from all countries, could facilitate these without the need for prior quarantine.

"You can come into Singapore... you can have your meetings, you can sign documents, you meet people through a perspex glass; different airflow. And when you finish your business, you can go back," said Mr Ong.

For his third point - vaccinations - he said: "We all know the effect. It has been successful; some of the vaccines have been proven (to) lower your chance of being infected, and also reduce the severity… And it also reduces your chance of transmitting to other people."

His final suggestion, which he described as most important and difficult to do, was to open up air travel with other Covid-19-safe countries.

"If we don't keep ourselves safe, there is no chance of opening up. But if you feel countries or regions are able to keep themselves safe, we're able to open up to each other because we are now at the same risk."

Mr Ong pointed to a quarantine-free Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble, scheduled to start on May 26 after being deferred last year following an outbreak in Hong Kong.

"If we can establish that air connectivity between us, I think it is a major step forward and a very viable model for the rest of the world," he said.

The authorities in Singapore are now monitoring the situation, given a spike in local cases and a new set of tightened restrictions that will run from May 8 to 30.

Earlier, Mr Ong was asked what he wished Singapore had done differently at the start of the pandemic.

He said the Republic's response would have been improved with earlier knowledge of scientific parameters such as the virus' R0 (R-nought) reproduction number and means of transmission, as well as the concept of case fatality rates.

R0 is the average number of new infections generated by each case, while case fatality rates indicate the likelihood of a Covid-19 patient dying in the country.

"If we understood transmission, we probably would know what precautions to take, including the compulsory wearing of masks," Mr Ong added. "So this is what I think is necessary - always respect science, and deal with the problem from the perspective of science."

He later stressed that a key challenge facing all countries was the balance between connecting with the rest of the world and protecting oneself.

"The fulcrum of that balance is different for each country. If you're a big, continent-sized country, you can pretty much close your borders because you have resources, you have enough manpower, you have enough industry, you can feed yourself," he said.

"Singapore's fulcrum is all the way on the other side. From Day One, in fact, in our 700 years of history as an island, we have always depended on trade. (Being) in the middle of South-east Asia, with sea lanes coming through us, along the Strait of Malacca - we have always depended on being connected with the world in order to survive, and do well, and prosper as an entity.

"So when this crisis struck, it struck at the heart of Singapore's survival, and future prosperity, and our whole purpose of existence."