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Will air travel bubbles take off or burst? Don't pack your bags yet, experts say

Will air travel bubbles take off or burst? Don't pack your bags yet, experts say

FILE PHOTO: Travellers at Heathrow Airport, London, Britain, February 13, 2021. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

SINGAPORE: Talk of air travel bubbles have lifted Singapore residents' hopes that they would be to travel abroad later this year, as COVID-19 vaccinations gather speed in some countries.

Reports in the past week have said that Singapore is in discussions with Australia and Taiwan separately about air travel bubbles without the need for quarantine. 

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also said on Thursday (Mar 18) that Singapore and New Zealand are discussing the mutual recognition of COVID-19 vaccination certificates, which would enable international travel.

Industry observers and public health experts told CNA there are still many uncertainties and issues to resolve before air travel bubbles can be successfully launched.

READ: Singapore discussing COVID-19 vaccine certification with other countries, says PM Lee
READ: Singapore, New Zealand discuss possible mutual recognition of digital health, COVID-19 vaccination certificates

Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said that the air travel bubble with Australia has been under consideration for several months, along with several other proposed travel bubbles.

“Unfortunately the Singapore-Australia air travel bubble has until now not been possible due to issues on the Australia side,” he said. 

In particular, Australia has been unable to keep internal borders open due to the “extremely conservative COVID-19 elimination strategies” of most of Australia's states, he said. 

Commentary: Singapore-Australia air travel bubble is sensible but politically challenging

“Singapore has a COVID-19 containment strategy, while the eradication strategies in Australia and New Zealand mean if there's a single community case they do not permit domestic travel and often implement snap lockdowns,” he said.

VACCINES A GAME CHANGER?

Last year, an air travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong burst at the last minute, after a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Chinese city.

The first flight for the Hong Kong-Singapore bubble was slated to be on Nov 22, but it has been postponed indefinitely until COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong can be contained.

READ: Hong Kong-Singapore air travel bubble can be launched 'when conditions are right': Ong Ye Kung

Singapore also has green lane travel arrangements with a number of countries, but these are generally for essential business and official travel. Some of these arrangements have been suspended as cases in those countries surged again.

Singapore also allows travellers from five places - Australia, Brunei, mainland China, New Zealand and Taiwan - to enter without quarantine. These travellers on Air Travel Passes still need to take a COVID-19 test on arrival and keep to other safety measures.

The difference with this year, compared to last year, is vaccination, said Ms Lina Ang, managing director of APAC at travel digital marketing platform Sojern.

Ms Ang said that while there are reciprocal green lanes in place, there has not been a spike in travellers so far. However, there seems to be growing interest for travel between Singapore and Australia.

Flight and hotel search as well as booking data indicate that “travel intent” from Singapore to Australia has grown 23 per cent in March from January, and has risen 27 per cent for travel from Australia to Singapore.

“The current vaccination will be the game-changer and it’ll be essential for countries that have formed a travel bubble to regularly update the public on the progress of their vaccination roll-out,” said Ms Ang.

READ: Singapore may reopen borders by year-end, says PM Lee in BBC interview

HOW VACCINE PASSPORTS COULD WORK

Other factors to consider for future travel bubbles include how well the current vaccines work, whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus, and how trustworthy vaccine passports are once they are rolled out.

Previous air travel bubbles fundamentally relied on each jurisdiction having maintained a period of few or even zero community transmissions, and required “a tenuous hold on the community situation”, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

“We have seen how the arrangement between Hong Kong and Singapore, or between Australia and New Zealand, have to be put on hold because of a resurgence in community infections in some of these countries,” he said. 

“With the vaccine passport, travel will be less restricted between countries in the bubble for people who have been vaccinated.”

READ: Singapore Airlines trials new app to verify COVID-19 test results, vaccination status

READ: IATA plans digital travel pass to steer airlines towards recovery

A vaccine passport is not a new concept and has been used in several countries for different kinds of infectious disease, said Associate Professor Sulfikar Amir from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences.

“We have experiences in using this as an instrument for disease control in international travel. The challenge lies in making sure that the passport is valid and the vaccine being used is effective,” said the associate professor of Science, Technology, and Society.

“Fake vaccine certification is a highly potential malpractice.” 

He said that the process could be implemented gradually, starting with bilateral agreements between two countries that have mutual trust on the validity of vaccine passports. The travel bubble between these two countries can then be expanded to include other countries whose vaccine passport systems have been approved.

READ: Singapore develops new standard for cross-border verification of COVID-19 test results

Singapore has said that it is looking into digital certificates based on blockchain technology to facilitate cross-border verification of health documents.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has also developed a digital travel pass that can show COVID-19 testing and vaccination information using a mobile app.

Some countries, such as China, have also launched digital health certificates for domestic use. But it is not yet clear how an international accreditation system will take shape.

"For the system to function in multiple jurisdictions, the security to ensure authenticity is actually one of the key features of the vaccine passport system," said Prof Teo.

UNKNOWNS ABOUT VACCINATION

A key assumption about the successful use of vaccine passports is that people who have been given an approved COVID-19 vaccine is much less likely to be infected or to infect others, he said.

While vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have been shown to effectively prevent disease - particularly severe disease - in vaccinated people, it is unclear if they stop that person from infecting others. Studies on this are ongoing.

Other concerns include how long the protection lasts, and the emergence of virus variants that could affect the efficacy of the vaccines.

READ: More data needed before border measures can be eased for vaccinated travellers: Ong Ye Kung

“The main concern is that governments will rush into the use of such vaccine passports even before global vaccinations are at a level that is ready for this arrangement,” said Prof Teo. 

“If countries start to roll out such vaccine passport arrangements before the science is ready, or before the vaccine uptake is at a sufficiently high level, this may end up worsening the problem of vaccine nationalism, or even lead to resurgence that invariably increases the risk of new resistant strains of the virus emerging.”

He cautioned that while there is optimism about the role of vaccination in enabling travel to resume, it would be “prudent” to wait for a better understanding of the science of vaccination, and for a bigger uptake of the vaccine globally.

"HIGHLY UNCERTAIN"

There are still question marks over when air travel bubbles will materialise, if any. This puts Singapore tourism businesses in a bind.

Dr Kevin Cheong, chairman of the Association of Singapore Attractions (ASA), said that for the industry, the year remains “highly uncertain”.  

It will be “a year of reckoning” for most tourism businesses in Singapore, with reduced direct government financial support and as inbound tourism traffic continues to flat line, he said.

“The attractiveness and novelty of domestic tourism and staycations will start to wear in the second half of 2021,” said Dr Cheong.

Even though borders may reopen in the second half of the year, it will be a “drip and trickle”, he added.

“Therefore I would advise tourism businesses to be cautiously optimistic, with an appropriate dose of paranoia and realism," he said.

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Source: CNA/hm

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