Why it’s time to scrap the Vaccinated Travel Lanes

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The Vaccinated Travel Lanes are already living on borrowed time, but their demise should come sooner rather than later.

When Singapore launched its first Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) agreements with Brunei and Germany in September 2021, it felt like a watershed moment. For the first time in almost 18 months, fully vaccinated individuals could travel overseas and return to Singapore without the burden of a 14-day SHN.

Yes, there were several expensive PCR tests. Yes, there was paperwork involved. Yes, you could be stranded overseas for 21 days if you tested positive on your pre-departure test. Yes, the kids couldn’t come (though some might see that as a feature, rather than a bug). But dammit, it was an opportunity to fly again, and a glimmer of hope that this nightmare might finally be coming to an end.

Although the VTLs were initially hailed as gamechangers, fast forward to today and the enthusiasm for the concept has waned somewhat. 94% of the eligible population is vaccinated. Omicron has shown itself to be less severe. ICU capacity isn’t under stress. Effective anti-viral treatments like Paxlovid are available. Imported cases are a negligible percentage of total cases.

And yet, Singapore residents still aren’t completely free to travel. The VTL partner list currently stands at 30 countries (albeit with more to come from 16 March when Greece and Vietnam join, and the entire EEA effectively becomes a VTL zone), a mere fraction of the 159 countries and territories that will accept Singaporeans without quarantine.

🌎 Singapore VTL Agreements
Current VTLs
  • Australia
  • Brunei*
  • Cambodia
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Fiji
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hong Kong*
  • India
  • Indonesia*
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Malaysia
  • Maldives
  • Netherlands
  • Philippines
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • UAE
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
From 16 Mar 22
  • Greece
  • Vietnam
*Brunei, Hong Kong and Indonesia do not currently allow Singapore residents to enter without quarantine

When Singaporeans do return from overseas, their flight options are restricted to designated VTL flights and governed by travel history. Book the wrong flight, and it doesn’t matter that you’re vaccinated and boosted, or came from a VTL country (which, mind you, the authorities have deemed sufficiently low-risk to allow travel in the first place); a 7-day SHN waits on return.

While I don’t want to discount the progress that’s been made on reopening borders, it’s hard not to feel like VTLs have gone from a catalyst to a crutch, a status quo that someone’s afraid to disrupt.

Let me preface this by stating I’m well aware that sooner or later, Singapore will scrap VTLs in favour of a system based solely on vaccination status. Transport Minister S Iswaran said as much last month:

“Our ultimate goal is quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travellers.”

This was echoed by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung as well:

Instead of having vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) with selected countries that we think are low risk, we should actually allow SHN-free travel for vaccinated travellers or fully-vaccinated travellers, from all countries. 

We should make this transition, not now, but after the Omicron wave has peaked and started to subside.

But the lack of a concrete roadmap or metric for doing this concerns me, because I firmly believe that the sunsetting of VTLs needs to come sooner rather than later. 

VTLs have become unnecessarily complicated

Long check-in lines for VTL flights are not uncommon due to all the documentation involved

The VTLs have now been around for more than half a year, and I’m still getting regular emails asking why there’s no VTL flights to Australia or some other VTL country (“SIA is trying to rip us off by blocking all VTL flights to the USA!” one writer raged; “How would they rip you off if they can’t sell you a ticket”, I thought of replying). 

You can argue that some folks just need better reading comprehension skills, but in fairness, it’s something that’s caused confusion from day one. People hear about VTLs and assume these are bilateral agreements, with mutually-agreed rules and designated flights in both directions. 

But the vast majority of VTLs don’t work that way. With the exception of Malaysia, there’s no such thing as a VTL flight from Singapore (the agreement with South Korea is also more bilateral in nature, although there’s still no such thing as a VTL flight to Seoul).

In fact, it’s more often the case that Singapore has opened unilaterally to a country that hasn’t responded in kind to our affections: see Brunei, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and for periods, Denmark, Italy and India. Yet people may go away thinking that the presence of a VTL supersedes all that, when in fact it doesn’t. A unilateral VTL is about as useful as a university degree that expires. 

VTLs have also become a breeding ground for absurd rules that, while eventually rectified, should never have seen the light of day in the first place.

Examples? Well, for more than two months after the VTLs launched, recent travel history to a Category I country would disqualify you from taking a VTL flight, when Category I countries were supposedly safer than the Category II countries making up the VTL!

Or consider the Vatican City. Italy was added to the VTL in October 2021, but even though the Vatican is wholly within Rome, it’s not legally part of Italy- and hence, anyone who stepped within the confines would officially be barred from VTL flights until a certain period had passed.

There is absolutely no public health reason why the Vatican City should be treated differently from the rest of Italy, so I don’t know what else you can call that, if not an unhealthy obsession with red tape and technicalities.

Now, this will change from 16 March, when the Vatican and other European microstates can feature in a VTL traveller’s 7-day travel history. But the mere fact this distinction remained on the books for so long points to a deep-seated fixation with bright-line legalism, as opposed to plain old common sense.

Or zoom the camera out and look at Europe as a whole. When Singapore expanded the VTL beyond Germany to include Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands and Spain, the natural question people had was how the Schengen Area’s borderless nature would play into this.

While I warned everyone not to play stupid games (making a false declaration on the ICA arrival card is a very serious offence, and there’s ways of finding out your actual travel history), the distinction felt less meaningful from a public health perspective. If country A and B have no border between them, and you permit your residents to travel to country A, would they not be mixing with a good number of country B people anyway? I suppose the thought process at the time was “yes, but fewer than if they travelled to country B”, but still…

When you’re on Lake Constance, are you in Germany, Switzerland or Austria? Should it even matter?

The failure to fully appreciate the borderless nature of Europe also gave rise to many hypothetical questions, few of which were ever definitively addressed. What if the route I’m driving took me through a non-VTL country (Neuschwanstein Castle and Linderhof Palace are both in Germany, but the fastest route between the two takes you through Austria)? What if I’m on a train that passes through a non-VTL country (Eurostar from Amsterdam to London via Brussels)? What if I take a boat that sails on waters that may belong to a non-VTL country (Lake Constance borders Germany, Switzerland and Austria)?

Again, this distinction will soon be removed with the 16 March changes, but it’s yet another example of how the VTLs have a tendency to overcomplicate things- quite possibly a bureaucrat’s wet dream.

VTL flights only offer the illusion of protection

VTL flight from Munich to Singapore

When VTL flights were first conceptualised, the argument went that they’d be extra safe spaces because every passenger would be vaccinated and tested. That may have been the case at the start, but I don’t think the same logic still holds. 

First, while all passengers on VTL flights must be fully vaccinated, they may not all be tested. VTL flights carry transit passengers too, and since 22 February, there’s been no requirement for transit passengers through Changi to carry a negative test result.

For example, a traveller flying from Sydney to Munich via Singapore would not need to be tested, since Germany does not impose any tests on fully vaccinated passengers from Australia. Yet he’d be sharing the same cabin with other VTL passengers flying from Sydney to Singapore!

Second, we know that vaccination effectiveness wanes over time. Boosters help tremendously, but they’re not required to take VTL flights. In fact, you could very well be sitting next to someone who completed their primary regime more than a year ago. 

Third, the vaccination requirement doesn’t apply to children aged 12 and below. The authorities decided to carve out an exemption for this group in October last year, following feedback/complaints (they’re often the same thing) from the public. So it’s entirely possible there’ll still be unvaccinated passengers on the plane regardless. 

Fourth, I’ve always thought the VTL flight distinction was odd, when at every moment up to boarding, you’d be mixing with vaccinated and unvaccinated people. What about the time I’m riding the train to the airport, or standing in line at passport control and security, or eating and drinking in the lounge in a mask-off setting? 

And before you say that an aircraft cabin represents prolonged close contact unlike transitory airport interactions, I’d point out that a traveller fresh off a cramped narrow-body flight from Paris to Frankfurt (with both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals onboard) would be perfectly at liberty to connect immediately to a VTL flight from Frankfurt to Singapore. 

So it’s hard to buy the argument that a VTL flight represents a significantly lower risk of transmission than a non-VTL flight.

VTLs are increasing the cost of travel

VTL flights can sometimes be much more expensive than non-VTL ones

A common complaint among VTL travellers is that airlines price VTL flights higher than non-VTL ones.

I don’t have enough data to know whether this is an actual trend, or whether it’s an example of confirmation bias. There are perfectly innocuous reasons why VTL flights may appear to be more expensive – airlines set aside a certain number of seats in each fare bucket, and since VTL flights are more popular, their cheapest buckets sell out faster. 

But even if we accept that there’s no price gouging and it’s all a simple matter of supply and demand, the fact remains that the supply side constraint is entirely self-inflicted. 

By creating a special category of VTL flights, we’ve bifurcated the supply of seats, resulting in wasted capacity. That’s not to mention the VTL quota of 15,000 per day, which may further limit the number of seats that can actually be sold (I don’t know if the quota is actually hit). 

Some have speculated that this is all a way of pumping more money into SIA’s coffers, but that’s too much conspiracy theory, even for me. I believe SIA would be much happier to sell more seats at a slightly lower price, get their fleet utilisation up and show higher load factors to investors. They’ve been taking every opportunity to add VTL capacity, after all. 

Scrapping VTLs would relieve airlines from having to run what essentially amounts to a dual-track system for vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, improving efficiency and utilisation. 

Conclusion

While VTLs have done a lot of good, they’ve now outlived their usefulness

There’s no denying that VTLs have evolved over time, and for the better. The current iteration is significantly less restricted than the inaugural one, and progress has been made by scrapping on-arrival PCR tests, shortening the relevant travel history period, and scaling back the VTP requirement. 

 Original VTLCurrent VTL
Pre-departure testPCR within 48hART or PCR within 2 days
On-arrival testPCR on arrivalART within 24 hours
Post-arrival testPCR on Day 3 & 7N/A
VTPLong-term passholders and short term visitorsWork permit holders and short term visitors
Relevant travel history21 days, VTL countries only7 days, VTL, Category I, EEA countries (from 16 Mar)

But we need to take the next step, and soon. 

Singapore was one of the first countries in the region to reopen its borders; even so it’s now being surpassed by others that have shifted to a system based purely on vaccination status. Thailand, the Philippines, India, even Fortress Australia and the Democratic People’s Republic of WA (as Alan Joyce would put it) have surged ahead by opening to all vaccinated travellers. Vietnam and Malaysia will follow soon.

VTLs have served their purpose as a proof of concept, but all they’re doing now is needlessly complicating things and driving up airfares, while offering little more than an illusion of protection. The longer Singapore stalls on retiring them, the more we risk falling behind.

Quarantine-free travel can be safely managed and implemented without VTLs. Let’s not get cold feet at the last hurdle. 

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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Gideon

great article…as densely packed with logic and common sense as a pre-pandemic Air Asia flight!

Cmdsea

Agreed. Good analysis Aaron.

University degree holder

Awww. “A unilateral VTL is about as useful as a university degree that expires.”

Eric

As useful as the one who suggested the expiration. lol

Kenneth

The most hilarious line in this wonderful article.

Jacq

Absolutely! Haha!

SSS

Great option piece. Keen to see more of these here.

When do you think we’ll see VTL’s removed?

Ben

Totally Agreed! Time to END VTL and other confusing requirements. Just start quarantine-free travel for everyone without the confusing requirements. We are not living with COVID if these confusing requirements are still implemented

Eric

This is what happen when some people do not use logic and science

Dario

Really great article Aaron, spot on, hopefully someone up there will read this

anon

VTLs are one..

When is Japan opening dammit

anon

I wonder if its because we are still restricted locally that VTLs are not removed?

Imagine the people saying about letting people come in freely while allowing only 5 to dine out

sevilles

Another example of how VTL provides “illusion of protection”. When people in a country can freely mingle without masks, the moment you step into an SQ plane, you have to keep your masks on all the time. I know you mentioned in your recent SQ trips that it’s a “by right, by left” thing, but SQ is stepping up enforcement and being an annoyance / stickler to their rules (same thing). On my latest flight this week, I was woken up (twice!) by an over zealous SQ crew because my mask fell off while sleeping – who insisted to jolt… Read more »

asprino

Same as social distancing required after you exit a packed MRT lor

John Tan

To be fair, other airlines do the same thing. It’s not just an SQ thing. In the US, it’s also a federal requirement to have masks on. Was reading an article where United on one flight required a business class passenger to replace his mask between bites lol

Greg

Brilliant article full of logic and reason, two things Singapore used to be known for pre-pandemic! Genuine question – any theory as to why the government has acted like a boomer getting their information off a WhatsApp group rather than listening to science and rationality the past year? Second genuine question, is the man on the street in SG aware of how much the rest of the world has moved on? Like would they be surprised / angry to see Europeans walking around without masks on and packing tens of thousands into football stadiums while you guys can’t meet up… Read more »

WBT

I think that’s very much part of it. Overreacting rather than underreacting was the right thing to do two years ago, when we had little data and no vaccines or treatments. Now it’s absurd. I was especially taken aback by Gan King Yong’s statement last week that we can’t normalize because “anything could happen.” That’s a very depressing statement because it will always be true, and means we can’t go back to normal, ever.

John Tan

and other airlines like Turkish only have 1 vtl flight a week which doesn’t make sense when it flies to singapore everyday

omg

OMG! Should I tell those who took and posted photos at Vatican during their VTL trip to Italy that they broke the VTL rules on return to Singapore…….

cheesecake

“Vatican City is an independent city state and not part of Italy”. Wonder which brainless folks at the ministries actually made these rules without considering the realities of travel beyond looking at Google Maps.

noob

Sounds like an argument between LW and OYK that’s being had everyday.

Ultimately it’s hard to put a value to human life. Opening up internally and externally will bring X amount of dollars with an estimated X number of covid related deaths. Tough choices to be made in the driver seat.

JW19

i think the impact is felt because we choose to run statistics on death by Covid-19. Should we start measuring death by dengue, influenza, hepatitis, etc, suddenly the numbers doesn’t look too alarming.

Alian

If you can’t convince them confuse them lol.

Because simplistic rules creates divisions we need to have complex rules and solutions to solve all our problems

Bruno

Until 21FEB22 Monaco was still a Cat4 country, which means that someone taking the direct train from Nice to Italy in the 2 weeks before returning to SG would also be ineligible for VTL.

Before the transit exception in travel history for non-VTL flights this would even mean a SHN dedicated facility hotel.
Ministates Vatican City and San Marino got at least placed in cat 2, but for some reason Monaco (and Andorra) were the only West-European countries still in cat 4 back then.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bruno
WBT

I’ll just add to the praise here for Aaron for an excellent article! If you take your logic a few steps further, and apply it to the restrictions we face domestically in Singapore…well, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but from my perspective we’d end up with normal and free life again. The “illusion of protection” applies to so many things now beyond the VTL. But getting rid of the VTLs and simply requiring vaccination would be a big step forward!

Chantelle

Milelion for Prime Minister

Cake

Good article. 👍
I feel ‘discriminated’ as a vaccinated traveller with this VTL thing. There are more non vtl flights per day to Malaysia than vtl flights. Just do a search on SQ website and one can see. Plus, the extra to pay for being ‘vaccinated’ to travel. What’s the logic?

Amos

I for one could never understand the logic of a vaccinated person being more risky or at risk on a non-VTL flight. If anything, the VTL scheme was just to control the number of incoming visitors and nothing else. And yes…it’s really time to let that go.

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