Some safe opening of air travel possible if governments open up to countries with low Covid-19 infection rates: Ong Ye Kung

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung acknowledged it is a difficult time to talk about reopening borders. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Some safe opening of air travel in 2021 is possible if governments open up cautiously with regions that have a low number of domestic Covid-19 cases, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung.

At the same time, measures should be tightened for places with high infection rates, he added in a speech on Monday (May 3) at a virtual dialogue on reopening borders by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Business Advisory Council.

Making the point that "vaccines are working", he said: "We are not likely to see a strong V-shaped recovery in aviation this year. But the start of a recovery is possible, and worth working towards."

Addressing policymakers, business leaders and industry representatives, Mr Ong acknowledged it is a difficult time to talk about reopening borders, with countries facing the threat of new variants of the Covid-19 virus.

But it is an imperative in the immediate to medium term, even though such talks are "fraught with uncertainties, risks and setbacks", he said.

"The opening our borders is ultimately about connecting our countries, our cities, our businesses and our people - ensuring that global cooperation and exchange continues," he said. "It is what humanity desires and instinctively seeks."

He cited the example of Singapore and Hong Kong, which are both aviation hubs as well as international financial services centres.

Both need its airports and airlines to keep on humming in order to continue to play such roles, said Mr Ong.

Hong Kong and Singapore had announced that a travel bubble for quarantine-free travel would start on May 26.

Noting that the air bubble between Australia and New Zealand is undergoing "some stop and start", he said Singapore is grappling with a cluster of infections that emerged from Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

"But fortunately, and as of now, unlinked cases in the community have remained low. Perhaps that is why we call them bubbles, because they are by nature a bit fragile, given the circumstances we are in," he added.

Mr Ong also outlined the four key measures needed to reopen borders safely.

Besides opening up only to countries that have successfully controlled the virus, the other measures are testing for Covid-19, bubble-wrapping travellers and vaccinations.

On vaccinations, Mr Ong said Singapore is involved in talks at the International Civil Aviation Organisation and with various places about the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates.

"A no-regret step to do now is for countries and regions to start work on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates," he said.

"What to do after recognition is a policy question that can be decided on later, when more evidence and data become available."

Hong Kong's Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau, who spoke after Mr Ong, said governments should "respect science" in the process of reopening borders.

He added: "We must plan for the best and prepare for the worst. We shouldn't be discouraged by some of the hiccups, but rather, we should learn from all the experiences as we move forward."

In a panel session later on, Singapore Business Federation chief executive officer Lam Yi Young called for countries to work together to put in place consistent travel requirements across different borders.

"This can help to avoid a spaghetti bowl of rules that makes it difficult for businesses to plan for travel," said Mr Lam.

"This is an area that we believe that Apec can play a big role, maybe in terms of adopting common standards and mutual recognition for Covid-19 testing, vaccinations, digital health passports, and also some form of consistent quarantine protocols across economies."

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