VIRUS OUTBREAK

Fresh curbs on travellers from Asean, Japan, UK, Switzerland

New requirements include 14-day stay-home notice; Singaporeans advised to defer all non-essential travel abroad

Singapore

SINGAPORE has further tightened border controls to contain the import of Covid-19 into the country.

From 11.59pm on March 16, all travellers - including Singapore residents, long-term pass holders and short-term visitors - entering Singapore with recent travel history to Asean countries, Japan, Switzerland or the UK in the last 14 days will have to comply with a new 14-day stay-home notice and provide proof of the place where they will serve the notice.

In the case of Malaysia, the restrictions do not apply to land and sea crossings due to the "close proximity and high interdependency" between both countries, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on Sunday, noting that some 300,000 people move across the land checkpoints daily.

Separate arrangements with Malaysia are currently being worked out.

Still, the new border control will disrupt the way business relationships are being built across the causeway, with Malaysia being a longstanding trading partner of Singapore.

The Singapore-Kuala Lumpur air route is the busiest in the world with 30,187 flights over the course of 2018, according to data from air travel intelligence company OAG.

CIMB Private Bank economist Song Seng Wun told BT: "Singapore is highly dependent on trade services. Any restrictions in the movement of people will cause a meaningful drag on economic activities."

The "unprecedented" restriction would mean that businesses present in both Singapore and Malaysia have to rely more on digital communication tools, said Terence Wong, chief executive of fund management firm Azure Capital.

Koh Ching Ching, OCBC head of group brand and communications, said that while OCBC does not see a "major impact" in the short and medium term, it will become "increasingly challenging" to engage new and prospective clients digitally in the long run.

"Banking is about building relationships. And we need the face to face interactions to do that," said Ms Koh. OCBC has a sizeable regional presence and counts Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Greater China as its core markets.

Azure's Mr Wong told BT that the extent of business impact hinges on the current demand for goods and services.

"If everyone has been hunkering down and there's already no demand for the goods they're supplying, then the operational impact (due to travel restrictions) on the business wouldn't make much of a difference," he said, pointing to the manufacturing industry as an example.

But overall, most industry observers say regional businesses are likely to be less impacted by Singapore's border controls - compared with the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic back in 2003 - as they are now more digitally-enabled.

"Companies now have the option to do conference calls, video calls and other forms of telecommunications that weren't readily available during the Sars period," said CIMB's Mr Song.

OCBC's Ms Koh added: "We have international teams who are based locally in our core markets to support the cross-border banking needs of clients. The penetration rate of digital banking services has also been increasing over the past few years."

A UOB spokesman told BT that the bank halted all business travel early last month, and has been encouraging the use of digital communication tools for its people to collaborate in markets and across borders. "These are working well," he said.

Azure's Mr Wong and CIMB's Mr Song told BT that the tourism and aviation industry will ultimately bear the biggest brunt of Singapore's latest move to contain the spread of Covid-19.

"With three of the busiest routes for carriers here being disrupted, the airlines, airports and logistics industry will see quite severe impact," said Mr Song.

Globally, the Jakarta-Singapore air route was the third busiest route in 2018 with 27,046 flights in that year. The Bangkok-Singapore route saw 14,698 flights over the same period.

"Airlines will have to mothball more planes. This will knock out any demand, even if there is a little trickle of it left. Their operational numbers are not going to look pretty in this year," said Mr Wong, noting that it could take more than a year for recovery to set in. "We can say that 2020 will be a write-off."

Changi Airport saw a 32.8 per cent year-on-year fall in passenger movements in February as air travel demand continues to be dampened by the global pandemic.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday said that the economic fallout from Covid-19 will likely be more serious than the 2009 global financial crisis - and longer-lasting - even before the end of the pandemic.

"I fully expect things to get more serious before they start getting better," said PM Lee in a Facebook post.

In addition to the new stay-home requirement, all short-term visitors who are nationals of any Asean country will have to submit information on their health to the Singapore Overseas Mission in the country of their residence before their intended date of travel, or be denied entry into Singapore. The submission will have to be approved by Singapore's Ministry of Health before travel to Singapore, and be further verified by the Immigration and Checkpoint Authority officers at Singapore checkpoints.

This comes as Singapore has seen an increase in Asean nationals entering Singapore with a "specific purpose" to seek medical care, said Mr Lawrence Wong. In the past four days alone, more than a quarter of imported Covid-19 cases were from Asean countries.

"It's very hard for us to cope with this additional demand during this critical period, where our healthcare resources are already stretched," said Mr Wong, noting that the imported cases will impose a "significant" burden on Singapore's healthcare resources at this time.

All Singaporeans are advised to defer all non-essential travel abroad with immediate effect. This advisory will be in effect for 30 days, and will be reviewed thereafter. The Ministry of Manpower will also introduce new measures for foreign domestic workers entering Singapore, with more details to be announced soon.

Singapore has seen an increase of 39 new Covid-19 cases in the past four days, of which more than three quarters were imported cases. The latest infections bring Singapore's total tally to 226.