Singapore has unveiled plans to explore new measures to reopen its borders including additional air travel corridors, rapid testing, and easing its 14-day self-quarantine rule as the island nation struggles to revitalize its status as a global air hub amid a pandemic-driven recession.
Speaking at a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung acknowledged that Changi Airport and national carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) both faced a “deep” crisis as a result of fewer flights and lower passenger volumes. Despite fiscal relief measures to soften the impact of the pandemic, Ong called for “proactive steps” to revive Changi Airport’s international hub status, adding that it was a matter of national priority.
“The longer our borders remain closed, the greater the risk of losing our air hub status and our attractiveness as a place to invest and to create jobs because of those investments. The status quo is therefore not sustainable for us. We cannot just wait around for a vaccine, which may take a year or two to become widely available,” he said.
Measures now under consideration include a change to Singapore’s 14-day stay-at-home orders, which Ong called “onerous,” and a deterrent for most travelers. A more stringent and repeated Covid-19 testing procedure over three, five, and seven days are now under study. Ong also stated that Singapore is considering lifting travel advisories for its citizens to countries with stringent public health measures in place while continuing to pursue reciprocal air travel corridors with partner countries in a bid to spur business travel, having done so already with Malaysia, Brunei, China, and South Korea. Reopening Singapore’s borders unilaterally to nations that share a similar “low risk profile” also stands as a possibility, after the city-state recently allowed entry to travelers from New Zealand, Brunei, Vietnam, and Australia, excluding coronavirus hotspot Victoria.
“We do not expect big numbers in the short term because these countries currently discourage or restrict travel for their residents,” said Ong. “But notwithstanding this, such unilateral opening is still meaningful because it is like a standing invitation.” The United Kingdom had unilaterally opened its borders to Singaporean travelers without requiring quarantine measures, Ong added. Nevertheless, he said Singapore will maintain its travel advisory against traveling to the U.K. due to its high number of Covid-19 cases.
While Singapore has employed a meticulously coordinated public health response to the pandemic, the country faces dire economic effects, due largely to its dependency on global traffic. Once the seventh busiest airport for passenger traffic, Changi has since plummeted to rank as the world’s 58th, offering direct flights to just 49 international destinations compared with 160 before the onset of the pandemic. According to Ong, Singapore has suspended plans for a fifth mega terminal at Changi.
“We have decided to take a two-year pause so that we can have more clarity on the pace of air travel recovery before deciding how to proceed with the project,” he said.