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Keynote Address by Minister For Transport, Mr Ong Ye Kung, for the APEC Business Advisory Council Dialogue on Reopening Borders for Safe and Seamless Travel

03 May 2021 Speeches

1.     Friends and colleagues, thank you for inviting me to this dialogue. It is a privilege for me to be delivering this opening address together with Mr Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development for Hong Kong. 
 
2.     As you may know, Edward and I have been working closely together to start the Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel Bubble. It has not been easy. 
 
3.     It is, to be honest, a difficult time to talk about this topic of opening borders, given that we are all facing the threat of new variants of the COVID-19 virus, which is raging around the world, especially in South Asia. The fact is, in the midst of a global pandemic, any talks of opening borders and air travel bubbles are inherently difficult – fraught with uncertainties, risks and setbacks.
 
4.     The last time we announced a Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel bubble, there was an outbreak in Hong Kong unfortunately, and we had to postpone the launch. The Trans-Tasman bubble is undergoing some stop and start. 
 
5.     Singapore, now we are grappling with a cluster of infections breaking up in one of our hospitals. But fortunately, and as of now, unlinked cases in the community have remained low. Perhaps that is why we call them bubbles, because they are by nature a bit fragile, given the circumstances we are in.
 
6.     Notwithstanding these challenges, the reopening of borders is something that requires a lot of work, a lot of discussions, and is an imperative in the immediate to medium-term. It is a topic which international groupings such as the ABAC, needs to start discussing seriously. 
 
7.     Borders reopening is not just for tourism and holidays. I know that for international investors, it is much more than that. Because the shutting of borders due to COVID-19, pose significant challenges to your overseas investments. You cannot meet international partners, suppliers, customers face-to-face. Your key staff posted overseas cannot come home to visit families and relatives, and many other inconveniences that makes the investment challenging. 
 
8.     The opening our borders is ultimately about connecting our countries, our cities, our businesses and our people – ensuring that global cooperation and exchange continues. It is what humanity desires and instinctively seeks. 
 
9.     I believe that Singapore and Hong Kong understand this acutely, for we are international cities, aviation hubs and international financial services centres. We are interlocutors of East and West. We are venues and destinations, cities, where people of the world gather to build trust, nurture relationships, forge partnerships, solve problems, create new products and solutions, and deliver them to the world. 
 
10.    For us to continue to play our roles, be who we are, we need our airports, our airlines to keep on humming. For Singapore, we will have to ensure that Changi and SIA continue to have a future, which is why in this global pandemic, Hong Kong and Singapore found a kindred spirit in each other.
 
11.    Given that we have a long journey of recovery ahead of us, we have a lot of work be done. Let me share my views on the principles and concepts that can make an air travel bubble safe and effective.
 
12.    The key objective of an air travel bubble is to replace quarantine with other risk mitigation measures, because quarantine kills the demand for travel. How then, do we manage the risks and ensure that travellers do not import and spread COVID-19? This is really the challenge statement. 
 
13.    Based on our experience thus far, I think there are four ways. 
 
14.    The first is testing. Testing allows us to detect infections early, and prevent onward transmissions to the community. We can do pre-departure tests, on-arrival tests, repeated tests, even daily tests for travellers during their duration of stay, pick them up immediately when there are signs of infection. 
 
15.    Singapore has invested in our testing capacity nationally. Today we are performing about over 30,000 tests a day, and we are able to double that throughput.   
 
16.    We are also working on alternate means of testing, such as breathalysers, which have the potential to deliver accurate results at a fraction of the cost and time of PCR tests. Two prototypes are currently on trial at Changi Airport. 
 
17.    The second way is ‘bubble-wrapping’. This means ensuring that travellers keep to a tight itinerary. Minimise their interactions with the local community, or in fact be confined into one single venue. 
 
18.    Some of you may be familiar with the Connect@Changi facility, which opened its doors just over two months ago. By ‘bubble-wrapping’ travellers within this facility, as well as for their journey to and fro the airport, this unique facility allows business travellers to resume some face-to-face meetings with their local partners here in Singapore, and even exchange documents to be signed. 
 
19.    The third way is vaccinations. As countries and regions vaccinate their populations progressively, infection rates will be brought down.  We are seeing that happening in countries such as the US, UK and Israel.  
 
20.    There is strong evidence to show that vaccines are effective R0 suppressors.  Therefore, from a public health point of view, a vaccinated person can perhaps be subject to fewer control measures such as shorter or no quarantine, compared to a non-vaccinated person. 
 
21.    But differentiating the two has other social and policy implications.  So, a no-regret step to do now, is for countries and regions to start work on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates.  What to do after recognition, is a policy question that can be decided on later, when more evidence and data become available. 
 
22.    Singapore therefore is involved in discussions at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and with various countries and regions, on the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates. 
 
23.    Finally, the most important mitigation measure is to only open up to countries and regions which have successfully controlled the virus. These are places with very low, or even zero infection rates and comprehensive surveillance and control measures to maintain the situation that way. 
 
24.    These four measures, they do not work in isolation. They must work together. I call them the four snorkels sticking out of the water; because for aviation, our head is underwater. These are four snorkels that allow us to take in some air. 
 
25.    Combining these measures will help lower the risk of infection enough. If enough, it can replace quarantine. For example, Singapore has unilaterally opened our borders to visitors from places such as Australia, Brunei, China, New Zealand and Taiwan. This has not led to higher community transmissions in Singapore. 
 
26.    The scheme is effectively a combination of identifying safe places, and then coupled with testing. The Hong Kong- Singapore Air travel bubble is another example. The difference is that this is a bilateral arrangement. Our plan is to start small, one flight a day, combined with the pre-departure and on-arrival testing, and trigger points are defined to suspend the arrangement, if need be.  
 
27.    To reopen borders, governments need to differentiate the risks of different regions. Try to open up cautiously with regions that have kept domestic infections low. At the same time, tighten up on places which have high infection rates. It is the only way. If countries work on that basis, I think there is a possibility that in the course of 2021, we should see some safe opening of air travel. Because vaccines are working.
 
28.    We are not likely to see a strong V-shaped recovery in aviation this year. But the start of a recovery is possible, and worth working towards. 
 
29.    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and I wish you a fruitful and constructive dialogue ahead.