VTL travellers from Singapore exempted from South Korea's new quarantine rules

South Korea confirmed its first five cases of the Omicron variant late on Dec 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - People will still be able to travel without quarantine between Singapore and South Korea under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme, in spite of new border restrictions kicking in from Friday (Dec 3).

The Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Singapore said on Thursday that the VTL arrangement between the two countries will proceed without change at the moment.

"Given that the Covid-19 situation remains volatile, we advise all travellers to check our website regularly for the latest border control measures prior to travel," said the embassy in a notice posted on its website on Thursday evening.

An official from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency told The Straits Times that talks are under way between the two countries but no decision has been made for now.

Even if there are changes, it will take a few days to take effect, the official added.

Singapore and South Korea had on Nov 15 jointly launched VTLs in both directions to let vaccinated travellers fly between the two countries without having to quarantine.

The status of the VTLs was thrown into doubt on Wednesday evening, after the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said it would halt quarantine exemptions for fully vaccinated inbound travellers. It announced plans to impose a 10-day quarantine on all inbound travellers from Friday.

The measure came after South Korea confirmed its first five cases of the Omicron variant late on Wednesday, including a fully vaccinated couple who arrived last week from Nigeria, followed by two of their family members and a friend.

South Korea is among countries that have reintroduced quarantine requirements for travellers in response to Omicron. Many countries, including Singapore, have tightened Covid-19 requirements for travellers as well.

The move had caused confusion on the status of the VTLs between Singapore and South Korea.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said in a statement on Thursday that it is seeking more information on South Korea's new border restrictions.

CAAS director of air transport Daniel Ng said: "We are clarifying whether these requirements apply to the vaccinated travel lane arrangement for entry into the Republic of Korea. We are awaiting more information from the RoK authorities."

In the meantime, eligible travellers from South Korea can continue to enter Singapore under the VTL scheme, subject to Covid-19 tests, he said.

In response to queries, South Korea flag carrier Korean Air said: "According to the (South Korea) Ministry of Transport, VTL flights into Korea will not be affected by the new 10-day quarantine policy on arriving visitors.

"VTL flights into Singapore are also not affected."

The airline is one of the four operators of designated VTL flights between Singapore and South Korea. The other airlines are Singapore Airlines (SIA), Scoot and Asiana Airlines.

SIA said on Thursday evening that the South Korean authorities have confirmed that eligible travellers may enter the country quarantine-free under the VTL scheme.

It advised customers to ensure that they meet all the latest entry requirements before their flights, given the dynamic Covid-19 situation.

Some travellers, spooked by the tightening of border restrictions worldwide, had turned up at the SIA customer service centre at Ion Orchard on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ms Vanessa Ang, 31, who flew to Seoul on Nov 27, said life is still going on as per normal in Seoul, albeit with several Covid-19 precautions similar to those in Singapore.

The assistant marketing manager added: "I am worried that more changes may occur within the next few days and that I might be required to stay here for longer than I expected.

"I am keeping my fingers crossed. Hopefully that won't be the case."

An American expatriate in Singapore who wanted to be known only as Ms Angela S, 36, said she bought tickets to fly to Seoul on Dec 11 with her family to meet her husband's parents. The housewife's parents, who are based in the United States, also booked flights to Seoul for a long-awaited family reunion.

It would be the first time that both sets of parents meet Ms Angela's 20-month-old daughter.

Ms Angela and her husband decided on Wednesday evening to cancel their trip after hearing about South Korea's new quarantine requirements, as they did not want to risk having to isolate at a facility with a toddler.

She spent about four hours queueing at the SIA customer service centre at Ion Orchard, before she managed to speak to an employee.

Ms Angela said the experience so far has caused her family a lot of anxiety. But she noted that expatriates have had difficulties returning to Singapore from other countries during the pandemic, and added: "It won't deter us from travelling as we don't have the privilege as many locals do in having our families here in the same country. And life is too short to be separated for long."

Additional reporting by Chang May Choon

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