The big problem with the Germany VTL

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Planning to travel on the VTL? That pre-departure test in Germany has the potential to cause a major headache.

Update: From 10 September 2021, Singapore will require travellers from Category II countries to take a PDT, thereby removing a key advantage of non-VTL travel. Read about it here. 

While the upcoming VTL with Germany marks the first quarantine-free travel opportunity for Singapore residents in 18 months, it’s not completely frictionless. Travellers are still required to undergo four PCR tests, in lieu of an SHN.

VTL travellers must undergo a pre-departure PCR test in Germany

Now, I don’t mind the tests per se (especially since Germany has the less-invasive gargle kind). Sure, it adds additional cost, but that’s simply the price of quarantine-free travel.

However, the pre-departure PCR test in Germany has the potential to throw a spanner into the works- a possible deal-breaker that VTL travellers need to be aware of. It’s also reason enough to examine the other alternative: Category II travel. 

Options for returning to Singapore

Singapore residents who travel to Germany have two options for returning to Singapore. They can:

  1. Enter under the VTL
  2. Enter under Category II restrictions

Here’s the differences between the two:

🛂Singapore Border Restriction by Category
 VTL Cat. II
Short-term visitors
Application requiredVTP
(not required for SC/PR)
Details on ICA website
Pre-departure PCR test
48h before depart.
On-arrival PCR test
SHN
7 days at home/hotel
Day 3 PCR test
Day 7 PCR test
Free to Choose Flights?
VTL flights only

Any non-stop flight, or flights with transit in Cat. I/II countries

The main advantage of the VTL is the ability to avoid a SHN on return to Singapore. This is replaced by a pre-departure PCR test before boarding the flight to Singapore, as well as additional tests in Singapore on arrival, Day 3, and Day 7.

⚕️ Testing Regime for VTL
LocationRemarksPrice
🇩🇪 Germany48h before departure
S$110-380*
🇸🇬 SingaporeOn arrival S$160
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 3 S$94.16
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 7 S$94.16
*The price is so variable because of the presence of 1-2 hour “express” solutions. The traditional 24h turnaround tests will be at the lower end of the spectrum.

But that pre-departure test poses problems of its own. 

What if you test positive in Germany?

Testing positive for COVID-19 in Germany could be a logistical nightmare

In a separate post, I’ve laid out what happens should your pre-departure PCR test in Germany reflect a positive result.

tl;dr: you’ll be ordered to enter self-isolation for anywhere between 5-14 days, until cleared by a PCR test. Assuming you’re asymptomatic or only have mild symptoms, this will be done in a hotel.

Unlike Singapore, Germany does not have a system of managed quarantine in government facilities. This means you’ll need to pay the cost of additional hotel nights; your travel insurance, if it covers COVID-19, should provide a fixed allowance per day of quarantine. 

Update: From 7 October, the “no return to Singapore if positive test” duration gets cut to 14 days.

Unfortunately, that’s not where it ends. ICA has a further policy which states that individuals should not travel to Singapore if they:

  1. Have symptoms of COVID-19;
  2. Are diagnosed or suspected to have COVID-19 infection in the last 21 days before departing for Singapore; or
  3. Had close contact with any person with COVID-19 in the last 14 days before departing for Singapore

(2) is the issue. Regardless of how long your self-isolation lasts, you’ll need to stay in Germany for at least 21 days from the date of your positive result. I asked ICA if that extended to VTL travellers as well, and received this response:

2             Travellers who test positive on their COVID-19 PCR test should seek appropriate medical care and ensure that they have fully recovered and are non-infectious before travelling to Singapore.

3             Depending on travel history within the last 21 days prior to arrival, all inbound travellers will also be required to take a COVID-19 PCR test within 48 or 72 hours before departure for Singapore. If a PCR test is required to be taken before departure, i.e. a condition for entry into Singapore, travellers must take the test regardless of whether they have recovered from COVID-19.

4             Effective from 7th May, 2359 hours, travellers will be denied boarding by their airline or ferry if they are (a) diagnosed with COVID-19 infection 21 days or less, from the date of travel; and/or (b) tested positive on the pre-departure COVID-19 PCR test.

5              Kindly note that all inbound travellers are required to submit their arrival information, including health declaration, using the SG Arrival Card e-service form at https://eservices.ica.gov.sg/sgarrivalcard/, up to three (3) days before entry into Singapore.

6              Applicants are reminded to take all health, travel and SHN-related declarations seriously, and to submit truthful and accurate information. Firm enforcement action will be taken against those found to have made false declarations

7              Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents should not apply for a VTP to travel to Singapore under the VTL, as they can return to Singapore without the need for entry approval provided they adhere to the VTL requirements. Please click here for more information on the requirements.

8              Thank you.

While it’s annoying I didn’t get a straight yes/no answer, I believe point (4) is the crux: positive test= return to Singapore delayed by 21 days. 

To be fair, this isn’t a Germany-specific restriction. It would equally apply to inbound travellers from any other country. Heck, if the Hong Kong ATB had gone ahead (instead of bursting into a million tiny pieces), it’d apply to bubble travellers too. 

All the same, that’s far from ideal.

The Category II alternative

Update: The information in this section is now out of date. From 10 September 2021, Singapore will require travellers from Category II countries to take a PDT, thereby removing a key advantage of non-VTL travel. Read about it here. 
🛂 Category II Rules
  • 7-day SHN at home/hotel
  • No pre-departure PCR test
  • PCR test on arrival in Singapore
  • PCR test on Day 7

Consider then, the alternative. If travellers return to Singapore on a non-VTL flight, they will enter under Category II rules.

This means a PCR test on arrival, followed by a 7-day SHN which can be served in a hotel or at home. If served at home, the traveller is required to have a dedicated toilet and bedroom; he/she need not have the entire house to him/herself. 

Crucially, there’s no pre-departure PCR test required in Germany. This could very well be a case of “ignorance is bliss”, since the only quarantine scenario takes place in Singapore. I know where I’d rather be quarantined, if push comes to shove. 

Put it another way: the big draw of the VTL isn’t the SHN waiver per se; it’s time. It allows travellers (at least those who can’t WFH) to minimise the leave they need to take, and is minimally disruptive to their regular activities. 

But all that is negated if you end up having to spend an additional 21 days in Germany. It might still be OK if you’re self-employed or can work remotely, but otherwise I imagine most employers wouldn’t be too pleased to hear about it. 

The other advantage of the Category II route is that in addition to non-stop flights, you can also take a flight with a transit in a Category I or II country (since the most restrictive rules apply, you want to avoid anything higher than Category II). For example, you could take a transit flight through Hong Kong and still qualify for a 7-day SHN on return. 

Since vaccination is not required for Category II, it’s an option for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated travellers, including those with children under 12. 

Weighing the two options

So what does this mean for would-be travellers to Germany? Here’s my assessment of the two options. 

VTLCategory II

✔ No SHN in Singapore

✖ 4 PCR tests
✖ VTL flights only
✖ Potential 14 day isolation in Germany
✖ Cannot return to Singapore for 21 days after positive PCR test

✔ More flight options
✔ 2 PCR tests
✔ No risk of extended Germany stay
✔ Available to unvaccinated individuals

✖ 7-day SHN

I think the question boils down to how much of a gambler you are. By taking the VTL, you’re guaranteed no SHN provided your pre-departure test is negative. In return, you accept the possibility of having to stay in Germany for 21 additional days. 

Category II travel has a guaranteed 7-day SHN, but has zero risk of getting stranded in Germany. 

I’ve seen people trying to hedge themselves by saying well, I’ll just take a self-administered ART in Germany and if the result is positive, I’ll come back via Category II. Leaving aside the ethicality of boarding a plane when you know you might be infected, this won’t work for the simple reason of the SG Arrival Card.

All travellers, including Singapore Citizens, Permanent Residents and Long Term Pass Holders, must complete the SG Arrival Card within 3 days prior to date of arrival in Singapore. Inside is a Health Declaration section with the following questions. 

You’re asked point blank if you are diagnosed or suspected to have COVID-19 infection in the past 21 days. Ergo, if you get a positive ART result, you have to disclose it. Making a false declaration on the SG arrival card is a serious offence, and you can be charged under the Infectious Diseases Act. 

And for those thinking: 3 days- great! I’ll submit my arrival card at the 72 hour mark, take my test at the 48 hour mark, and even if I’m positive, my submission will still have been truthful at the time…well, ICA has pre-empted such shenanigans.

So you really need to cross your fingers and hope that pre-departure test turns out to be negative, or your trip to Germany could end up being very expensive indeed. 

All this could be resolved if ICA simply dropped the requirement for a pre-departure test. After all, VTL travelers are already on a dedicated flight with fully vaccinated passengers only, and they need to undergo a PCR test on arrival. While I get there’s some incremental benefit from the pre-departure test (namely, the odds of two false negative PCR tests is smaller than one), this is exactly the sort of thing that could torpedo the VTL. 

Conclusion

None of this changes my VTL plans; I mean, reviewing it is part of my job after all. But until the pre-departure test requirement is removed, or the clause prohibiting return to Singapore for 21 days after a positive test is eased, the risks for most will be too great. 

I’m still hoping that ICA will provide greater clarity or else update its policy in the days to come, but until then, Category II is worth a serious look.

Aaron Wong
Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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