Why Singapore isn’t imposing new travel rules on visitors from China

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Singapore’s Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung told Parliament Monday that the government is not imposing new restrictions on travelers from China because limited flight capacity, combined with its current border policies, have resulted in few imported cases — and even fewer severe cases — coming from China.

Ong said the government is “acutely aware” that some Singaporeans are worried that an influx of visitors from China could lead to a rise in infections.

But he said travel volumes between Singapore and China are “very low” — with fewer than 1,000 people arriving from China daily.

“As of now, we run 38 weekly flights from China to Singapore, compared to around 400 flights pre-Covid,” he said.

Ong acknowledged that a new, more dangerous variant could emerge from China as the virus spreads through its population of 1.4 billion, but said that so far, this has not materialized.

With extensive vaccination coverage, we can treat Covid-19 as an endemic disease.
Ong Ye Kung
Singapore’s Minister for Health

Ong said Singapore is monitoring this through GISAID, a non-profit organization that he said is obtaining viral sequencing data from authorities in major Chinese cities and provinces, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan, which is processed in GISAID’s Singapore office.

Though there are “gaps in the data,” Ong said, “So far, the data shows that the epidemic in China is driven by variants that are well-known and have been circulating in other regions of the world” — namely BA.5.2 and BF.7.

Current rules are effective

So far, more than a dozen countries have announced new rules for visitors from China. But Ong said Singapore did not, because it already has effective border measures in place.

“Many countries have dismantled all their border measures,” he said. “Singapore … kept relevant measures precisely because we anticipated these risks.”

Singapore’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung attends a meeting at the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 27, 2022.
Sonny Tumbelaka | Afp | Getty Images

He said that while “many Singaporeans have forgotten about it,” all travelers must be either fully vaccinated or test negative for Covid before entering, which is the same requirement that Spain recently announced for travelers from China.

While South Korea has reported that up to 80% of its imported cases are coming from China, Ong said that, in December, less than 5% of Singapore’s imported cases — about 200 people — were from China, while “ASEAN countries accounted for over 50%.”

In the same month, seven imported cases became severely ill, and only one was from China, he said.

“Most were Singaporeans returning from these countries and regions,” he said. “These are not large numbers, so the impact on our healthcare system was very small.”

Singapore’s ‘greatest concern’

The government’s “greatest concern” is the emergence of a new, more dangerous variant that could escape vaccine protection — “a nightmare variant [that] can knock us back to almost square one,” Ong said.

If that happens, “We may need to reinstate measures such as strict border controls, quarantine for travelers, social restrictions including limit on group sizes, until a new and effective vaccine is developed.”

To monitor this, Singapore will stay plugged into the “global surveillance system,” he said.

Ong said the other key concern is protecting Singapore’s health-care system. He said that during the early stages of the pandemic, infections were the government’s primary concern, but as vaccines have been rolled out, it’s now focused on severe infections.

He said 60% of those aged 18 years and above were up to date with their vaccinations at the end of 2022.

“In the past 30 days, the number of Covid-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit is in the low single digit,” he said. “Hence, with extensive vaccination coverage, we can treat Covid-19 as an endemic disease.”

Why other rules may not work

Ong cast doubt on the effectiveness of some travel rules being imposed on Chinese travelers:  

  1. PCR tests on arrival “are too late, because the travelers are already within your borders,” plus they are sensitive, which means they will “yield a large number of positive cases from countries that are experiencing or have just experienced a big wave,” since recovered travelers can shed dead viral fragments for weeks.
  2. Wastewater tests from airplanes rely on solid waste, which will be of limited use since the flight time from China to Singapore isn’t that long.
  3. Pre-departure tests “can be useful … [to] reduce the number of imported infections” but low travel volume between Singapore and China “limits the number of imported infections more.” 

Ong added that if Singapore tested all travelers coming from China, questions would arise about travelers from other regions who contribute more infections and severe cases.

Ong called Covid outbreaks “the new norm,” saying “Today it is China, tomorrow another region.”
Roslan Rahman | Afp | Getty Images

“Further, by triggering [pre-departure tests] on travellers from one part of the world experiencing high infection numbers, are we contributing to an international precedent of imposing tests on travellers from countries experiencing an infection wave?”

Ong added: “How will other countries treat travellers from Singapore when we encounter another infection wave?”

‘We do not discriminate’

Ong noted that while some countries are imposing a pre-departure test requirement on visitors from China, Singapore will “not discriminate because severe cases can originate from any country.”

Chinese officials have labeled travel restrictions that target its residents “discriminatory.”

South Korea and Japan — two top destinations for Chinese travelers — announced that they aren’t increasing flights from China, limiting where flights can land, and requiring pre- and post-departure tests from its visitors.

As a result, Chinese travelers are “very angry” at South Korea — and “even angrier” at Japan — Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group, told “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.

China’s embassies in South Korea and Japan announced Tuesday that they would stop issuing visas to “Korean nationals” and “Japanese citizens.”

Increasing flights with China

Singapore appears to have stayed in the good graces of the Chinese government and its residents. Rein said Chinese travelers are now headed to Singapore, as well as Thailand, because “both countries are welcoming us.”

Singapore Airlines reinstated passenger service from Singapore to Beijing in late December. To start, the service will run just twice a month.   

Yet flights between Singapore and China are “less than 10% of the number of flights pre-Covid” — accounting for some 1.5% of Singapore’s Changi Airport’s total flights, Singapore’s Minister of Transport, S. Iswaran, said Monday.

Overall, passenger traffic and weekly flights at Changi Airport have returned to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, he said.

“Singapore and Chinese airlines have applied to operate more flights between the two countries,” Iswaran said, adding that the government is taking a “careful and calibrated” approach to restoring air connectivity with China.  

Right now, more than 60% of inbound travelers from China are Singapore citizens, permanent residents or long-term pass holders, Iswaran said.

“China’s opening up to the world is great news and something we are looking forward to,” said Ong, adding that the government will carefully adjust travel volume “at least until the infection wave has clearly subsided in China.”

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