Coronavirus: Vaccinated Travel Lanes

Singapore's travel lane to Germany: Should you use it?

Facts and feedback from the ground in the European powerhouse could help you decide

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 over 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 last Thursday, 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, the German Ambassador to Singapore, told The Sunday Times.

"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 hassle of Covid-19 testing.

The Sunday Times lays out the facts and feedback from the ground to help you make an informed travel decision.

VIRUS SITUATION

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 said that Germany's strategy of containing the coronavirus and learning to live with it is aligned with Singapore's policies.

"In its fight against Covid-19, Germany follows the very same path as Singapore: Vaccination is key," he stressed.

The ambassador said Germany was experiencing a "low level" of increase in infections, but that 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 said.

Germany's seven-day moving average of new infections stood at 6,200 on Friday. This was 49 cases per 100,000 people, up from 25 a week earlier, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

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 per 100,000.

Only 2.8 per cent of beds in Germany's intensive care units are occupied by Covid-19 patients, and the overall death rate from the disease is fairly low, too, at 2.4 per cent.

Germany boasts about 2,000 hospitals, with its best - the Heidelberg University Hospital - ranking 22nd in the world. The cost of in-patient treatment in hospitals in Germany was €5,088 (S$8,100) on average in 2019, the Federal Statistical Office said this year.

Since Germany's first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Munich in Jan 27 last year, it has seen more than 3.8 million infections and nearly 92,000 deaths, overwhelmingly among people above 70.

ENFORCING RULES

Virus containment measures may differ from state to state. Uniform nationwide rules, known as the "3G" health pass system, were recently introduced.

These rules essentially 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 to many public venues such as restaurants, theatres, salons, gyms and churches.

Germany is also ending free Covid-19 testing for most people in October to incentivise more residents to get inoculated. Children, as well as people who for health reasons cannot be vaccinated, can still get free testing.

Like in Singapore, face masks must be worn indoors, on public transport and in crowded outdoor spaces. But Germany has some stricter requirements: Only medical masks - surgical, N95, KN95 or FFP2 - are allowed. These are typically available in pharmacies, supermarkets and general stores.

Penalties for not being appropriately masked or not 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.

GROUND SENTIMENT

"I feel that Germany has managed Covid-19 well compared with other European countries," 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."

International school teacher Andriana Ngaman, 46, who is also Singaporean, said: "Police presence has been stepped up to ensure requirements are adhered to."

Ms Andriana lives in Heidelberg with her German husband and two children.

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.

"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."

DELIGHT, RELIEF

Most Singaporeans living in Germany whom The Sunday Times spoke to expressed delight and relief that they can finally return home or have their loved ones visit without having to serve a lengthy quarantine.

"It's great news! I save not only on the cost of SHN (stay-home notice) at dedicated hotel premises, but also the 14-day quarantine time," said freelance writer Cindy Tong, 44, who lives with her German husband in Stuttgart.

Ms Yeo is planning to fly back to Singapore on Sept 15 with some of her German friends.

Ms Andriana is happy about the VTL, but said she is unlikely to use the scheme as her children, aged nine and 11, are not vaccinated. Germany offers Covid-19 vaccination 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 The Sunday Times spoke to also said that while they found the initial German response to Covid-19 "a bit slow", the situation improved rapidly once people 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 coherence in Germany's policymaking can sometimes be lacking, because it's not always easy for the federal government and the different states to reach consensus."

BORDER CONTROLS

"It's easy to be critical, especially when comparing Germany with Singapore and how swiftly we responded," Ms Tong said. "But we're also much smaller and we don't have open borders. The Schengen area makes enforcement so much more difficult."

The Schengen area of 26 European countries has removed all border controls to ensure the free movement of their people within it.

Germany, which is part of the area, currently institutes compulsory quarantine for travellers from some Schengen regions with higher risk of infection, including parts of Greece, France and Spain.

Relating her experience travelling to the Italian Alps 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."

Her observations raise concerns that people who travel outside Germany could get infected and pass the virus to tourists in Germany.

But requiring that all passengers in the new travel lane be fully vaccinated lowers the likelihood of them falling severely ill even if they do catch the virus. The strict testing regimen also minimises the risks.

Moreover, passengers utilising the VTL must have remained only in Germany or Singapore for the past 21 days.

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, who runs a production company as well as a ramen restaurant in Berlin. "Singapore has a great standing among German tourists as a safe and clean destination."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 22, 2021, with the headline 'Singapore's travel lane to Germany: Should you use it?'. Subscribe