SINGAPORE: Some travellers from the United Kingdom are facing difficulties entering Singapore under its vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme due to certain gaps in the system.
The VTL scheme, which allows quarantine-free travel to Singapore, was expanded to the UK in early October. Travellers must fulfil certain conditions, such as being fully vaccinated if they are above 12 years old and having an officially recognised proof of vaccination.
However, those aged 13 to 15 are unable to obtain vaccinated travel passes (VTPs) to enter Singapore because they do not have a National Health Service (NHS) COVID Pass proving one’s vaccination status. The UK government only issues these to people aged 16 and above.
Such is the conundrum for Ms Helen Koh's family – specifically, her niece, 15, and nephew, 13, both of whom are long-term pass holders attempting to return to Singapore to reunite with their father after spending two years apart.
“They are fully vaccinated (with both doses of Pfizer-BioNTech). You’re just wanting, insisting on a pass that’s not available in their own country, so we don’t know what to do,” said Ms Koh, 48.
“If (authorities want to) only recognise NHS COVID Pass from the UK as a legitimate platform to verify or certify vaccination status, it’s no problem … But they must understand where is the coverage," she said.
Ms Koh added that the situation is paradoxical because unvaccinated children aged below 12 are allowed to board these VTL flights.
“Why penalise the children between 13 to 15 who are vaccinated? We don’t see the logic.”
Describing her back-and-forth correspondence with authorities, Ms Koh added that the family provided vaccine records for the children, but these were not acknowledged.
"They have the doctor or the vaccine provider endorsing it on a full medical record ... but we were told that 'Oh, sorry, because they cannot get the pass, they are not eligible for the VTL.'"
In an email from the Civil and Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to Ms Koh seen by CNA, the agency said it noted the challenges faced in obtaining the pass for this group of travellers.
“However, we also seek your understanding that the requirement to produce proof of vaccination that we can authenticate and verify safeguards the VTL and public health,” said the email.
It added that authorities are “constantly working to onboard more issuers”, and suggested they contact the UK authorities who issue the certificates or consider taking non-VTL flights.
Non-VTL flights are not an option for the children, as these will entail a seven-day quarantine that will eat significantly into their two-and-a-half-week school holiday, said Ms Koh.
As their holiday break draws nearer, Ms Koh said: “We were very excited (when we first heard the VTL news)… but now, everybody in the family, we are all losing sleep.”
In response to CNA's queries, CAAS said it is aware that the NHS COVID Pass is only available to those aged 16 and over.
"Should there be teenagers aged 13 to 15 who are ‘fully vaccinated’ by Singapore’s definition, but are unable to obtain an NHS COVID pass, they may write to the Safe Travel Office using the enquiry form here with their digital vaccination record retrieved from the public health database of their local health authority."
Their application will be reviewed, it said.
Based on Singapore's definitions, individuals receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are only considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the full regimen at least 17 days apart.
The authority added that Singapore citizens and permanent residents do not need a VTP. These travellers can present their digital vaccination records for verification at the airlines' check-in counter before departure and at Changi Airport upon arriving in Singapore.
CONFUSION OVER ELIGIBILITY FOR UK REGIONS
Separately, some travellers reported confusion about whether they qualified for the VTL, because of the different COVID-19 certification systems across the UK’s various regions.
This was the case for a Singaporean living in Northern Ireland, which does not use the NHS COVID Pass, even though it is part of the UK.
Instead, the territory uses COVID certificates issued by its own health authority, found on the COVIDCert NI mobile app.
"My fear was it will not be considered an accepted certificate unless it is on (the official) website," said the woman in her 50s, who only wanted to be known as Ms Li. She was hoping to return to Singapore to see her elderly mother.
CNA spoke to Ms Li on Nov 17. The SafeTravel website has since been updated to include Northern Ireland’s vaccine certification.
In response to queries, CAAS pointed out that the certificate found on the COVIDCert NI app is in the EU Digital COVID Certificate format, which is an accepted proof of vaccination for the VTL.
"Thus, such certificates will satisfy our requirement of having an accepted proof of vaccination issued in a VTL country/region," said the authority, adding that these travellers should have been able to obtain approval.
"We have also reviewed the list of acceptable proofs of vaccination from the UK to include the Northern Ireland COVID Certificate. Individuals holding these certificates are eligible for travel under the VTL," it said.
ISSUE OF MIDDLE NAMES
Other travellers from the UK have also faced issues getting a VTP because of varying naming conventions in both countries’ systems.
The NHS’ vaccination certificate does not reflect the individual’s middle name, resulting in a mismatch when uploaded alongside a passport that includes it, said travellers. This then prevented the individual from submitting the application.
On Facebook groups, travellers have shared their own informal solutions, such as asking their doctors in the UK to insert their middle names as part of their first name. Some have also advised others to leave out their middle name in the VTP application, even if it is in their official travel documents.
In response to CNA's queries, CAAS said the VTP application portal has been enhanced to be able to recognise and verify vaccination certificates that do not reflect a middle name.
"Travellers who continue to face issues with their VTP application may write to the Safe Travel Office using the enquiry form here and produce their vaccination certificate and travel document. We will review these applications."