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Singapore to bar UK travellers over new COVID-19 virus strain; tighter measures for those with travel history to New South Wales

Singapore to bar UK travellers over new COVID-19 virus strain; tighter measures for those with travel history to New South Wales

People in protective face masks walk at Changi Airport Terminal 3. (Photo: Calvin Oh)

SINGAPORE: Long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel to the United Kingdom will not be allowed entry into Singapore from 11.59pm on Wednesday (Dec 23), said the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Tuesday.

The travellers, including short-term visitors who have been to the UK within the last 14 days, will not be allowed to enter or transit through Singapore, said the ministry.

The announcement followed the discovery of a new highly infectious strain of the novel coronavirus in the UK, which British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said was "out of control"

"There have been recent reports of a potentially more contagious strain of the COVID-19 virus circulating in the UK," said MOH.

"Officials within the UK are also concerned about this new virus and have put in place more stringent restrictions, including imposing a new lockdown in London.

"To reduce the risk of spread to Singapore, we are putting in place new border restrictions for travellers from UK for further precaution," said the ministry.

The move by Singapore follows similar measures by other places that have already banned flights from Britain, including Hong Kong, India, Germany and France.

The ban will also apply to travellers who had obtained prior approval for entry into Singapore.

Returning Singapore citizens and permanent residents will be required to undergo a COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test upon arrival in Singapore, at the start of their 14-day stay-home notice.

Under current rules, all eligible travellers arriving from the UK have to serve a 14-day stay-home notice at a dedicated facility. Non-residents are also required to produce a negative COVID-19 swab test taken within 72 hours before their flight to Singapore.

Health authorities in the UK said the new strain may be 70 per cent more infectious. Although much is not known about the strain, experts say the current vaccines should still be effective against it.

"While the strain has been suggested to be more transmissible, there is currently insufficient evidence to determine if this strain is associated with any change in disease severity, antibody response or vaccine efficacy," said MOH.

"These aspects are being investigated by the UK authorities. The Ministry of Health will evaluate the data as it emerges and review our border measures accordingly."

The World Health Organization cautioned against major alarm over the new highly COVID-19 variant, saying this was a normal part of a pandemic's evolution.

The new variant carries mutations that could mean children are as susceptible to becoming infected with it as adults - unlike previous strains, scientists from the UK government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) said on Monday.

TIGHTER MEASURES FOR NEW SOUTH WALES TRAVELLERS

Border measures for those with travel history to New South Wales in Australia within the past 14 days will also be tightened from 11.59pm on Wednesday due to a resurgence in the number of cases, said MOH.

All travellers from Australia will be required to declare their travel history at airline check-in prior to their flight to Singapore.

Short-term travellers holding an Air Travel Pass and who have travelled to New South Wales within the last 14 days before departure for Singapore will not be allowed to enter the country.

Singapore citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders will be subject to a seven-day stay-home notice at their place of residence, with a COVID-19 PCR test before the end of the notice period.

Currently, all travellers from Australia are allowed to undergo a COVID-19 PCR test upon arrival. If the test is negative, they will be allowed to go about their activities in Singapore without a need to serve a stay-home notice.

New South Wales, which is Australia's most populous state, on Tuesday reported eight new locally acquired COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, down from 15 the previous day.

This is its lowest one-day rise in COVID-19 cases in nearly a week, fuelling optimism that contact tracing and social distancing were working to bring a dangerous new outbreak in Sydney under control. 

Seven of the new cases were traced to a cluster in Sydney's northern beachside suburbs.

The cluster, which was first detected last week, has now grown to 90 cases as authorities battle to contain the flare-up just days before Christmas. 

Responding to CNA's queries, Singapore Airlines (SIA) said on Tuesday that passengers from the UK who have had their flights cancelled or are no longer able to travel as they do not meet the entry requirements will be covered by its global waiver policy, and can retain the value of their ticket as flight credits, rebook or seek a refund. 

When asked about the impact of the new measures on capacity, SIA said: "We remain guided by regulatory authorities and will make adjustments to our capacity if required." 

READ: What we know about the new strain of coronavirus found in Britain

COVID-19 "STILL RAGING": LAWRENCE WONG

Speaking to the media after the new measures were announced, Minister for Education Lawrence Wong said there had been "not very many" travellers from the UK and those that came to Singapore were not exposed to the community because they were required to serve a stay-home notice. 

"From that point of view, there is already protection. But we have assessed the situation and we have decided to take an additional level of precaution," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force. 

Mr Wong said that the tightening of restrictions is a reminder that "we cannot let our guard down".

"Yes, we are all cheered by the arrival of the vaccines last night as well as the impending entry into Phase 3. But let's all remind ourselves that the virus is still raging everywhere in the world and we are now having to battle a new and more contagious strain of the virus."

The minister added that while the authorities remain vigilant "all around our borders ... in the community too we need every Singaporean to stay vigilant and to cooperate with the measures that we have put in place".

"We hope everyone will do their part so that we can stay focused and disciplined, all the way to the end until we win this fight against COVID-19," he said.

Minister for Education Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, speaks to the media on Dec 22, 2020.

The first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Singapore on Monday, making it the first country in Asia to receive the vaccines.

The vaccine shipment comes a week before Singapore enters Phase 3 of its reopening.

In Phase 3, social gatherings of up to eight people allowed and households will be permitted to receive up to eight visitors at any one time.

The authorities will also increase capacity limits for venues. For malls and large standalone stores, the capacity limit will be increased from 10 sq m per person to 8 sq m per person. 

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Source: CNA/dv(hs)

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