BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Although Brunei is assuming the ASEAN chair in January, it is unlikely in-person meetings can be held during the first half of 2021, the health minister said on Monday.

Speaking during a COVID-19 press briefing, YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said when vaccines come on the market in the first quarter of 2021, it is still uncertain whether all countries in the region will be able to access them.

“A lot depends on the logistics of global distribution, it may take a while. We have to think about how much [manufacturers] are able to produce and how much can they give to each country. We’re all in a queue,” he told reporters.

“The possibility of [hosting meetings in Brunei in the] first six months is very unlikely… For the latter six months, we don’t know yet.”

The minister added that MoH was in discussion with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the way forward for Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship.

ASEAN coordinates hundreds of meetings each year, from the community level up to the leader level, bringing thousands of people to the host country throughout the year.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, all senior official meetings and leader summits were conducted by video link this year.

The sultanate said accelerating COVID-19 recovery efforts will be its priority in 2021, but has yet to reveal how it plans to lead ASEAN-related meetings amid a pandemic.

New Zealand, the APEC chair for 2021, has said it will cancel the leaders’ summit, choosing instead to host the meeting virtually.

ASEAN leaders are keen to restart regional travel — given the region’s heavy reliance on tourists, foreign investments and trade, cross-border travel is crucial to economic recovery — and have signed a declaration signalling their intent to establish a travel corridor in 2021, which may exempt travellers from COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.

But the feasibility of regional travel by next year remains unclear, with the pandemic at different stages in ASEAN member countries.