S’pore willing to ease travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers to World Economic Forum; WEF delays further as imported cases spike

While Singapore is willing to review its travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers to the upcoming World Economic Forum (WEF) – which slated to take place in May – the organization has called for a further delay of its in-person meeting to August, seemingly unconvinced by the country’s COVID-19 safety measures.

It was reported earlier on that the WEF has relocated its annual meeting – traditionally held in Davos, Switzerland – to Singapore for the first time in 2021 due to the COVID-19 virus fears in Europe.

The event is set to become the first global leadership event to address the global pandemic recovery.

“The special annual meeting 2021 will be a place for leaders from business, government and civil society to meet in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic,” said WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab in a statement on 3 February.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the WEF plays an important role in promoting dialogue, as a forum where leaders from countries large and small alike can speak and be heard, which is why the country has agreed to host the annual meeting.

“Not a decision lightly taken, but we are happy to make a modest contribution to the global discussion,” he added.

The number of delegates attending the meeting has yet to be confirmed, but according to The Business Times’ report in January, WEF is targeting around 1,000 delegates and intends to hold the event at the Marina Bay Sands complex.

S’pore to ease travel restrictions on vaccinated travellers

However, given the precarious situation of a global pandemic, there are concerns on how Singapore will manage a major, in-person event with participants from across the globe.

On 4 January, Member of Parliament (MP) for West Coast GRC Foo Mee Har questioned in Parliament about the safety measures taken for the WEF event.

In response, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said that travellers who have been vaccinated against the COVID-19 could be subject to fewer border control measures if the vaccines have been proved to significantly curb the virus transmission risk.

“If there is clear evidence that transmission risks can be lowered significantly [by vaccines], we will certainly consider some relaxation to the SHN (stay home notice) regime for vaccinated travellers,” said Mr Wong, who also co-chairs the COVID-19 taskforce.

For now, vaccinated travellers and all other arrivals into Singapore will still need to abide by the current SHN rules.

“For example, we will ‘bubblewrap’ a facility, we will put the travellers under frequent testing to ensure that they are safe, and we will have safe management measures in place,” said the Minister.

However, Mr Wong noted that the restrictions for vaccinated travellers could be eased if more evidence on sterilising immunity appears, such as implementing a shorter duration of stay-home notice (SHN) or requiring fewer COVID-19 tests.

It is also “conceivable” that those who are vaccinated may not be required to take a pre-event test, he added.

WEF further delays the event

The WEF event was initially scheduled on 13 to 16 May this year in Singapore, but this was subsequently pushed back to 25 May until 28 May.

The organization further postponed the meeting to 17 August until 20 August, saying that the change in timing was due to the “international challenges in containing the pandemic”.

“Although the WEF and Government of Singapore remain confident of the measures in place to ensure a safe and effective meeting, and local transmission of COVID-19 in Singapore remains at negligible levels, the change to the meeting’s timing reflects the international challenges in containing the pandemic,” it said on 3 February.

The WEF noted that current global travel restrictions have made planning for an in-person meeting in the first half of the year difficult.

“Furthermore, differing quarantine and air transport regulations have increased the lead time necessary to ensure that participants globally can make arrangements to join,” it added.

Commenting on this, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said it understands the challenges faced by the WEF and has agreed to postpone the event.

“We will continue to partner the World Economic Forum closely to host a safe and successful special annual meeting in Singapore,” the MTI told The Straits Times.

Rise in imported COVID-19 cases in S’pore is likely the reason why WEF delays

While the WEF noted that the delay was due to “the international challenges in containing the pandemic”, it does seemingly referred to the recent hike in the imported COVID-19 cases in Singapore.

The country recorded 55 new imported COVID-19 cases last Saturday (30 January), which is the highest number of imported cases since it recorded 48 cases in 24 Jan this year and 23 March last year.

Minister Wong, however, said that the surge in imported COVID-19 cases in the country is not due to more travellers entering Singapore, but rather due to higher infection rates of the coronavirus across other countries in the world.

“We have not increased (the number of) travellers coming into Singapore,” Mr Wong said at a dialogue organised by the Institute of Policy Studies on 25 January.

“Why have the numbers gone up? It’s simply because the prevalence rate, the incidence rate, of the disease is much higher now. The virus is raging in countries everywhere,” he added.

Mr Wong also noted that the biggest sources of travellers are construction and foreign domestic workers, and that the number of these workers coming into Singapore has not increased “in recent times”.

He also explained that travellers have to take a pre-departure test 72 hours prior arrival.

“But the nature of these sorts of test is that they are not foolproof,” he said, adding that some people can initially test negative as the virus is being incubated in the body.

This is the reason why travellers have to observe the stay-home notices of 14 days or up to 21 days in some countries, in order to not allow the highly contagious virus to spread into the community, Mr Wong said.

WEF potentially become “a giant superspreader event”

Going back to the WEF event which aims to gather about 1,000 delegates from all over the world, it is inevitable that such an in-person meeting could increase the risk of virus transmission with the COVID-19 still raging worldwide.

Columnist William Pesek highlighted in his article, published on Nikkei Asia in January, that the WEF could turn into “a giant superspreader event”.

He noted that Singapore’s effort in reducing COVID-19 community cases comes at great cost to the economy, with the economy contracted nearly 6 per cent last year.

“Yet all this is short money. The risks, and likely costs later, may leave Singapore with buyer’s remorse for hosting a giant global event now — and WEF with some explaining to do,” said the Tokyo-based journalist.

Mr Pesek opined that WEF’s main goal of pursuing its meeting amid the deadly pandemic is because of the “massive attendance fees and corporate sponsorship cash” it could get from the event.

Singapore, on the other hand, wants to resume business and “pump life” into its hospitality industry.

“It also may worry that rivals like Hong Kong would grab the event if Singapore does not,” he added.

Mr Pesek pointed out that the WEF could devise plans for a virtual-meeting this year, instead of holding an in-person meeting that would risk physical contact among the attendees.

“It is not like the United Nations is meeting to achieve world peace or save lives somewhere. It is not like the World Health Organization is getting top virologists into a room together to protect humanity.

“The corporate glitterati can easily use technology, like the rest of us, to connect without risking physical contact five months from now,” he said.

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