Singapore: Hopes for an Australian travel bubble with Singapore have been dealt a fresh blow with the business hub tightening restrictions on its 5.7 million population and on incoming travellers as it confronts its first significant cluster of COVID-19 cases in months.
The south-east Asian island nation has already announced a two-way travel corridor with Hong Kong will begin on May 26 and its government has designs on a similar arrangement with Australia.
However, after keeping the virus largely at bay in the community since late last year and giving more than 20 per cent of its residents at least one shot of a vaccine, even Singapore has not been immune to the new wave of COVID-19 gripping the region.
Its numbers are tiny compared to those in neighbouring Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, which had avoided the worst of the virus but have been hit by swelling cases in the past month.
However, the potential implications are significant for a country intent on opening up as quickly as it can and convincing Australia, as a “low risk” nation, to establish a travel channel without the need for quarantine.
Singapore Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the ministerial taskforce on COVID-19, said 40 local cases connected to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital in central Singapore since last Wednesday and the emergence of mutant variants from India, as well as South Africa, Britain, Brazil were of sufficient concern to wind back freedoms. Five of the cases were connected to the Indian variant.
The city state is not returning to lockdown, or a “circuit breaker” as it was dubbed by the government in April 2020 when there was a peak of more than 1000 new cases a day. But late on Tuesday it announced changes such as the closure of gyms, a reduction of the limit on social gatherings from eight to five and a 21-day quarantine for inbound travellers from most countries.
That does not include Australians, who like arrivals from Brunei, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Taiwan only have to isolate until they’ve tested negative.
“We certainly hope not to have to invoke another circuit breaker,” Wong said.
“The new variant strains have higher attack rates, more infections, larger clusters than before. We tried to ring fence through contact tracing but we must assume that there are still hidden cases out there in the community,” he said.
The outbreak at the hospital has also resulted in the first COVID-related death in two months, with an 88-year-old woman passing away on Saturday.
Given the more than 61,000 total cases during the pandemic, the majority in the migrant worker community, and 31 deaths, the latest outbreak is so far statistically minor. But if it spreads further, it threatens to take the shine off Singapore’s success in handling the global health crisis since mid last year and shake the confidence of governments like Australia’s about setting up a travel bubble.
Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Keith Tan said last week the establishment of such a corridor “depends on the Australian government because we’ve opened up to Australia”. But the Morrison government has already demonstrated it is in no hurry to add to its quarantine-free international travel deal with New Zealand which began on April 18.
For Singapore, travel bubbles aren’t the only things that could be jeopardised by a spike in the virus; there are major in-person international events on the calendar in the next three months.
The country is set to host the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference on June 4 and 5, with United States Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin saying on Tuesday he would be attending what will be his first visit to south-east Asia.
Singapore is also hosting the World Economic Forum in August.
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Chris Barrett is the south-east Asia correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.