Commentary: Here's how Singapore can take the reins of opening up travel bubbles safely
Quotas on inbound travel, on top of the mutual acceptance of national standards on quarantine, testing and contact tracing, will be needed for air travel to restart, says Ross Darrell Feingold.
SINGAPORE: The move to resume some cross-border travel between Singapore and Malaysia by Aug 10 has been heralded as a first step towards both countries possibly lifting more travel restrictions.
Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was quick to caution Singapore was likely to take a “step-by-step approach” on reopening its borders with Malaysia earlier in June.
While Minister Lawrence Wong also tried to manage expectations that Singapore might open travel bubbles with other countries in highlighting on Jul 18 that leisure travel may not be possible this year, there has been worldwide momentum to review how air travel can be safely resumed.
As some governments around the world move to waive quarantine requirements for arriving passengers from certain countries and territories, such as the recent list of countries from which passengers may enter England, Northern Ireland and Wales, other governments are considering more cautious option of a travel bubble.
In my view, there is yet to be a successful travel bubble. Countries in Asia with success to date managing COVID-19 such as Vietnam are reluctant to open their doors to foreign arrivals.
The oft-discussed Australia – New Zealand travel bubble fell victim to a sudden spike in COVID-19 and implementation is delayed for now.
But if there is a location well situated to participate in a travel bubble, Singapore is it.
Changi Airport’s grip on best airport awards, Singapore Airlines consistent recognition as among the top airlines in the world, and effective government communication on COVID-19 to the public gives Singapore the know-how to lead the way on bubble implementation.
INDUSTRY BENEFITS FROM A TRAVEL BUBBLE
Opening a bubble is important not only for purposes of facilitating air travel, but also to keep Singapore’s air services economy operating and preparing for when virus conditions improve regionally and globally and additional traffic can resume.
Companies such as SATS are working closely with customers to reimagine air travel in a post-pandemic world.
A bubble that allows for additional flights out of Changi Airport will ensure services such as aircraft maintenance, catering services, and other related industry activities can continue to function, so that further pay cuts and redundancies can be reduced.
Cargo traffic will probably resume faster than passenger travel. Logistics routes within bubble partners will help in the transport of essential cargo and reduce the stress on crews from non-bubble destinations who may be restricted to turn-around flights or quarantines upon arrival.
TRANSIT VIA THE BUBBLE
With the recent opening of Changi Airport to transit passengers, both Changi Airport staff and Singapore Airlines have quickly gained significant experience maintaining and tracking the health of airport staff including health and security personnel, airline staff, and transit passengers.
The re-opening for transit passengers occurred simultaneous to the June increase in COVID-19 cases in Singapore, which travellers should view as a sign that passenger safety can be managed notwithstanding virus conditions in the community outside airports.
Transit passengers are also at lower risk than tourists as they do not mingle with the local population and are generally confined to restricted transit areas in the airport.
BUBBLE IMPLEMENTATION CHECK LIST FOR GOVERNMENTS AND TRAVELLERS
A bubble can only safely proceed if, and when, there is mutual recognition and acceptance of national quarantine procedures, COVID-19 testing regimes, hospital resources and contact tracing mechanisms, if not harmonisation of standards.
Importantly, the relevant counterpart country cannot be a high-risk destination, though even the status of low- and medium-risk locations can quickly change.
Taiwan, for example, recently removed Australia and Hong Kong from the list of locations for which quarantine requirements were relaxed for arriving passengers.
Unlike pre COVID-19 travel when travellers briskly walked by an infrared temperature check at airports in Asia, bubble travel will require significant technology and financial preparedness.
Businesses may see essential travel allowed if travellers have sponsorship and obtain prior approval, similar to the conditions imposed by the Singapore-China Fast Lane.
Travellers should expect to enroll in a health pass platform, supported by an app or other technology that allows authorities to track the wellbeing of each traveller and enable rapid contact tracing so that clusters will not develop should there be a confirmed COVID-19 case among visitors or someone visitors come into contact with.
For some travellers, personal privacy concerns might outweigh the desire to avail themselves of a bubble travel opportunity.
As Singapore is a densely populated country, visitors who exit from airport restricted areas will have significant interactions with the local population. This might come as a surprise to the public who, in recent months, have not encountered the normal number of business and leisure travellers.
Authorities must be prepared for an influx of questions or even inaccurate reports that a visitor violated quarantine requirements.
READ: Commentary: Airlines will need to review their fleets to boost passenger confidence and demand
These concerns make measures to regulate the inflow of bubble travellers desirable at least in the early days of a bubble’s implementation. Even where counterparts to the bubble reciprocate, there may be quotas on inbound arrivals.
WHICH LOCATIONS SHOULD BE PART OF SINGAPORE’S BUBBLE
A key motivating factor for travel bubbles is to partner with destinations for which citizens and residents have strong familial connections. For Singapore this includes China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
However, industry might also want bubble agreements with travel hubs such as Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Sydney and Tokyo to facilitate transit passengers staying in Singapore for short-term visits prior to flying to third destinations.
Business travellers should not expect to benefit though. Short turnaround trips such as for one or two day business meetings are unlikely to be feasible especially if there are quarantine requirements in a traveller’s country of residence upon return, as quarantines would impose significant time and monetary costs.
WHAT MIGHT CAUSE YOUR FINANCIAL BUBBLE TO BURST
Many travellers during the COVID-19 era have dealt with the frustration of trying to obtain refunds for cancelled flights and accommodations. The small print, including in travel insurance policies, certainly matters.
The same applies to health insurance policies or government programmes to provide coverage for COVID-19 tests or treatments.
Before travelling within a bubble, obtain the latest information on what a health insurance policy or government subsidy programme will cover if one becomes ill.
These rules may differ for infections that occur overseas versus after return to Singapore. They may also differ depending on whether the traveller is a citizen, permanent resident, long-term, or short-term pass holder.
Travellers must also consider the risk that while overseas within the bubble, a sudden spike in cases might disrupt air travel, forcing the traveller to incur significant accommodation and other costs until flights resume.
Ross Darrell Feingold is director, business development at SafePro Group, a consultancy that advises corporate clients about travel safety and risk mitigation around the world.