Singapore — Leisure travel between Singapore and Hong Kong is expected to begin again soon, with officials from both sides working on a travel bubble that will allow people to fly in and out safely. However, the cost of testing for Covid-19 could add as much as S$800 to each traveller’s expenses, according to a report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Tuesday (Oct 20).

Therefore, there is a need for less expensive testing methods for Singapore to revive its travel and tourism industries, which are among the hardest-hit by the pandemic.

Under the travel bubble, visitors will no longer be required to serve a quarantine period or only be allowed to go to specific places, but they will most likely need to take polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which cost around S$200 per test in Singapore.

How many tests each traveller will need to take has not yet been announced, but there is a possibility that travellers will need to be tested four times — before their flights, sometime after they land, before flying home and some days after they arrive home.

The SCMP report quotes the Dean of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, Professor Teo Yik Ying, as saying: “Clearly, the maximum number of times of testing that travellers could be faced with could be four tests, meaning two pre-departure and two post-arrival tests when travelling between Singapore and Hong Kong.” Hence, the additional S$800 needed for the four tests.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Oct 15 that “each territory, each party, should be also free to impose their own administrative arrangements”, including testing upon arrival in Singapore.

Dr Wong King Yin, a tourism expert from the Nanyang Technological University, warned that these added costs would make travel out of reach for those who are already feeling the economic impact of the pandemic.

“Because the economy is already doing badly, a lot of people’s incomes may be less than before, and some have already lost their jobs. The ability to travel may be very different from pre-Covid,” she said.

The price of the added tests could serve as a deterrent to the Singapore Government’s endeavors to boost the economy.

One possible solution is to make testing less expensive, said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases expert from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, which means looking for alternatives to PCR tests.

Prof Teo said that the PCR test “brought us to a certain stage in managing the disease, but going forward we need something even cheaper, faster and better”.

One alternative would be less costly and faster antigens tests, which search for proteins on the surface of the virus, or serology tests, which look for antibodies that show if the person being tested had a previous Covid-19 infection. However, these tests have a lower sensitivity rate to the infections.

And while new and better antigen tests are in development, they are not yet available.

But the Transport Minister had said in Parliament on Oct 6, in the context of restoring air travel safely, that other tests including one using saliva and another using a breathalyzer were being looked into and, when ready, these would be used instead of PCR tests.

The breathalyzer test, developed by researchers from the NUS, is said to have accuracy rates of over 90 per cent in one clinical trial. Moreover, the test only takes one minute for results to come out.

“Once we have the evidence to suggest that screening with a breathalyser is sufficiently accurate, I am sure this will be helpful to boost the travel and aviation sector,” said Prof Teo. /TISG

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Hong Kong, Singapore agree ‘travel bubble’