Experts predict uncertain future for mass travel

Singapore has already suspended three green lane arrangements as cases surge

Mass travel in the near future appears to be increasingly uncertain, with countries relaxing and reimposing travel restrictions based on their progress in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singapore, for one, suspended three green lane arrangements with South Korea, Germany and Malaysia late last month in view of a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in those countries. Green lanes allow essential travel for business or official purposes.

Experts told The Straits Times that this comes as no surprise, since the Government has always adopted a risk-based approach, assessing each country's current risk level.

For instance, tighter regulations were imposed late last year for travellers arriving from Britain because of concerns about the new virus variant.

Associate professor of economics Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences explained: "The pace of border reopenings has always been dependent on the current risk assessment, an approach that has prevailed for many months. As countries get their outbreaks under more control, travel should be reopened to those countries."

He noted that travel will probably remain highly uncertain, given how most governments show no hesitation in shutting borders or banning travellers from one region or another with very little notice should the Covid-19 situation deteriorate.

Doing so will tend to discourage all but essential and high-value travel, Prof Theseira added.


Mr Wong Soon-Hwa, chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, called on travellers to always be prepared for suspension or cancellation of plans.

"It will be very frustrating and disruptive, but necessary," Mr Wong said and added that suspensions are the new reality amid the pandemic.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said more green lane suspensions are to be expected, with certain countries seeing scant progress in their fight against Covid-19.

However, new cases are reportedly falling globally as more countries ramp up their vaccination programmes, Prof Teo said, so worst-case scenarios for international travel could be averted.

Places such as Australia and Brunei have continued to do exceptionally well in keeping their Covid-19 situation under control and this has allowed Singapore to keep its borders open to travellers from these countries, he added.

A suspension should also not be seen as a setback, Prof Teo said, but instead a part of calibrating the nation's border measures according to a realistic risk assessment of importations.

"Singapore could have adopted a simplistic approach to border control by erring on the side of caution and being homogeneously strict - such as by putting a blanket ban towards travel - but that would not properly recognise the nuances of how governments are able or incapable of managing their local outbreaks," Prof Teo explained.

"Country-specific risk calibration actually permits a faster resumption of travel - except we need to communicate the evolving measures clearly to travellers."