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|
|From 16 Mar 22|
|*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
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…
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
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
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.
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 VTL||Current VTL|
|Pre-departure test||PCR within 48h||ART or PCR within 2 days|
|On-arrival test||PCR on arrival||ART within 24 hours|
|Post-arrival test||PCR on Day 3 & 7||N/A|
|VTP||Long-term passholders and short term visitors||Work permit holders and short term visitors|
|Relevant travel history||21 days, VTL countries only||7 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.