S'pore discussing air travel bubble with Australia but no talks on quarantine centre: MFA

A near-empty domestic terminal at Sydney Airport last December. The resumption of travel between Singapore and Australia, with priority for students and business travellers, is in the works.
A near-empty domestic terminal at Sydney Airport last December. The resumption of travel between Singapore and Australia, with priority for students and business travellers, is in the works.PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore is discussing a possible air travel bubble that will allow those living here and in Australia to travel between the two countries without any quarantine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said yesterday. It also made clear that the two countries are not in any discussion on a quarantine centre or vaccination hub.

It was responding to media queries following a report in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, which said the Australian government was working on a plan to establish Singapore as a quarantine gateway, holiday destination and potential vaccination hub for returning Australians, international students and business travellers.

"We are not in discussion on the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub," said MFA in a statement.

But the resumption of travel between Singapore and Australia, with priority for students and business travellers, is in the works. Talks on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates are also in progress.

This is the latest of Singapore's efforts to reopen its borders amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the aviation and tourism industries.

With the pandemic stabilising in some countries in its second year, and with the beginning of widespread vaccination, hopes of a gradual recovery have been raised.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung has said that reciprocal travel bubbles with places with low to moderate infection rates could become a reality in the second half of this year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also said in a BBC interview broadcast yesterday that hopefully, "the doors can start to open" by the end of the year or next year, if not earlier.

This is despite the changes that are likely in how people travel.

He said: "It would not be like before where you can just buy a ticket, hop onto the plane and go off to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Bali for a weekend and a casual holiday.

"You have to plan for it, you must have some documentation, you need some way to prove that you have been properly vaccinated and maybe be tested to prove that you have the antibodies in you when you fly."

Australia now has a one-way "travel bubble" with New Zealand, allowing New Zealanders to visit without quarantining, though the scheme has been suspended a number of times in response to coronavirus outbreaks.

Singapore so far has agreed on only one travel bubble - with Hong Kong. But this has yet to kick in because of an increase in Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong late last year.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Baey Yam Keng, at an award ceremony for Chinese Development Assistance Council volunteers yesterday, welcomed the plans for a travel bubble between Singapore and Australia.

"Hopefully it is part of a progressive 'opening up' that we can see for the rest of the year, and there will really be light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

When asked if Singapore might issue a vaccine passport that shows details of a traveller's Covid-19 inoculation - as China has done - he said the authorities are considering all options.

He added, however, that those who have not received the vaccine should not be discriminated against. "In the end it is not about not allowing people to travel because they are not vaccinated, but it is about maybe making it easier," he said, suggesting that other measures such as stay-home notices and quarantine can still be applied to them.

Mr Chris Coburn, president of the Australian Chamber of Commerce Singapore, said the travel bubble, if implemented, will be good for businesses in both countries.

"The benefits to the economies of both countries are clear given the volume of trade between Australia and Singapore, the large number of Australian regional company headquarters here, the international companies based here with interests in Australia and Singapore's significant investments in Australia," he said.

The MFA, in its statement, said Australia is a key partner of Singapore in the region and that both countries have been able to control the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australian nationals can already transit via Singapore without quarantining to return home if they travel on approved transit routes.

And travel is becoming more feasible with new innovations.

Changi Airport is trialling two breathalyser-like Covid-19 tests that can deliver results in just a couple of minutes. If they prove to be successful and are approved by the authorities here, all it would take is a single breath to tell if travellers have been infected with the coronavirus.

Mr Ong said applications for their approval for use can hopefully be filed "in the coming months".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2021, with the headline 'S'pore discussing air travel bubble with Australia but no talks on quarantine centre: MFA'. Subscribe