Quarantine, SHN must go to revive aviation: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore's Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung addresses Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate on Thursday, 4 March 2021. (SCREENGRAB: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel)

Singapore’s Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung addresses Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate on Thursday, 4 March 2021. (SCREENGRAB: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel)

SINGAPORE — Quarantine and Stay-Home Notices (SHN) must be replaced with other methods that can also substantially reduce the risk of transmission, in order to revive aviation, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Thursday (4 March).

“Our mission this year is not so much to force a sharp recovery, but to adapt to a new normal, to re-open safely, and build up confidence and belief that Changi Airport will still be an international air hub post-COVID,” said Ong during the Committee of Supply (COS) debate for the Ministry of Transport.

Responding to fellow Sembawang Member of Parliament Poh Li San’s query on how MOT plans to revive the aviation hub, Ong said, “Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question with certainty. We may have a plan, but the virus observes no rules and has no plan.”

Nevertheless, he laid out four ways of replacing quarantine and SHN, beginning with testing. The minister revealed that Singapore can now perform more than 60,000 tests a day.

The second method is to “bubble wrap” travellers, by ensuring that they keep to a tight itinerary, in restricted premises, away from the community.

Thirdly, recognising that travellers from certain places are safe, because they have successfully controlled the virus. “We unilaterally opened our borders to places such as Australia, Brunei and China. So far, the scheme has not led to any increase in local transmission,” noted Ong.

Acknowledging that the Air Travel Bubble (ATB) with Hong Kong has yet to be launched, Ong stressed that the government will not give up on the idea.”I see ATBs playing a key role in safe opening this year. Because as vaccinations bring down infection rates worldwide, more countries will be prepared to forge ATBs.”

He added, “We can also identify places with low to moderate infection rates, and combine vaccination and tests, to open up travel corridors. We will do our best to make these arrangements bilateral so Singaporeans can travel outwards too.”

A new critical development

Fourthly, Ong pointed to a “new critical development” in vaccinations. And as more scientific data becomes available, authorities will be able to ascertain the extent to which vaccination reduces transmission of the virus. “This will enable us to allow vaccinated individuals to travel with fewer restrictions, perhaps even without SHN.”

This will require a system of certification, such as the yellow booklet that records vaccinations against malaria and yellow fever. Ong revealed that Singapore has been active in such discussions, which are happening bilaterally and at international platforms like the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Calling aviation the lungs of Singapore, the minister said, “In aviation, our lungs need inflating, but our head is under water. Each of these methods to re-open travel safely are like snorkels sticking out of the surface of the water. They allow us to take in some oxygen, to keep Changi and SIA going. And each snorkel must not work in isolation.”

He added, “With vaccines, and the realisation of governments around the world that they cannot keep their borders closed perpetually, there will be some re-opening of borders, and some recovery this year.”

Green shoots of recovery

Ong also revealed that when COVID-19 struck, passenger volume at Changi Airport fell to 0.5 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Almost one year later, Changi is now carrying five times that – but this still only 2.5 per cent of pre-COVID 19 passenger volume.

Flight movements are performing better, at a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, and this is due in part to a surge in cargo flights.

“Changi Airport is connected to 66 cities around the world, compared to 160 cities pre-COVID-19. We expect connections to expand further in the coming months to about 80 cities,” said Ong.

In response to MPs Melvin Yong and Dennis Tan, the minister noted that based on the labour market survey up to the third quarter of 2020, the aviation sector had lost 6,000 jobs. About 500 are retrenchments, and the rest early retirement and non-renewal of contracts. Non-residents shouldered the great majority of the reduction.

“Hiring of graduates have slowed, though there is still good demand for technicians. I checked with our universities, who reported that most aerospace graduates still found jobs, but likely in other sectors. Fortunately, engineers are very versatile,” said Ong.

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