Singapore to halt quarantine-free travel lane ticket sales

A bus driver sprays disinfectant on the luggage of passengers travelling to Malaysia at a bus station in Singapore as the Vaccinated Travel Lane between Singapore and Malaysia opens on Nov 29, 2021. (Reuters photo)

Singapore will freeze ticket sales for flights and bus trips under its vaccinated travel lanes for entry from Thursday 23 to Jan 20 as it tries to stem the importation of the omicron variant that is tearing around the globe.

The move applies to all 24 countries with which Singapore has agreements for quarantine-free air travel, as well as overland bus services with Malaysia, the government said Wednesday. People who already have tickets will be able to travel.

Singapore will also temporarily reduce quotas and ticket sales for travel after Jan 20, the Ministry of Health said.

“Our border measures will help to buy us time to study and understand the omicron variant, and to strengthen our defences, including enhancing our healthcare capacity, and getting more people vaccinated and boosted,” the ministry said in a statement.

Omicron has fast become the dominant Covid-19 strain in many countries since it emerged about a month ago, accounting for more than 70% of cases in the United States alone. The variant has been found in Singapore, which has been opening its borders to select countries since October after abandoning a Covid-Zero approach still pursued by the likes of China and Hong Kong. 

Singapore is the latest country in Southeast Asia to suspend reopening efforts in an attempt to buy time against the more transmissible variant after Thailand halted its quarantine-free entry programme this week.

In Australia, there’s pressure from medical experts to bring back mandatory mask-wearing and density limits, while New Zealand has pushed back the phased reopening of its border until the end of February due to the omicron variant threat.

Singapore Airlines fell as much as 1.6% after the announcement. Malaysia also froze the sale of plane and bus tickets to Singapore under its sole vaccinated travel lane from Thursday through Jan 20, according to Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. Like Singapore, Malaysia will reduce the quota for tickets from Jan 21 when sales resume.

Singapore is now also instructing people returning from overseas to avoid high-risk mask-off activities such as dining at restaurants or exercising in gyms for seven days after arrival, even if they test negative each day. Previously, returnees were allowed to move freely once they tested negative.

Singapore’s local cases have plunged from a daily high of more than 4,600 in late October to just 221 on Tuesday, according to Ministry of Health data. Still, imported cases — most of them omicron — are on the rise to more than 50 each day.

The city-state detected its first local omicron cluster at a gym tied to three cases, the health ministry said earlier this week. The ministry’s latest release reported 280 new cases including 54 imports, but didn’t provide a breakdown on the variant.

Singapore is one of the most vaccinated places in the world, with 96% of those eligible and 87% of the population overall fully inoculated. More than a third of the population has received booster shots. Jabs for those under 12 years of age will start on Monday.

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