BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei has put on hold the return of students to UK universities until at least January 31, but stopped short of banning flights from London after a new and more infectious coronavirus strain was found in the UK.

Students are expected to continue their online lectures even though UK universities planned to gradually resume in-person teaching after the December holidays, acting education minister Datin Seri Paduka Dr Hjh Romaizah Hj Mohd Salleh said during a press briefing on Thursday.

The delay will also affect students who were scheduled to board Royal Brunei Airlines flight BI 003 to London on January 2.

There were about 800 Bruneians pursuing their studies in the UK, according to government figures in March.

UK health authorities first identified the new COVID-19 strain in September before it started to dominate two-thirds of new cases in London by mid-December.

The rapid spread of the mutated COVID-19 variant has prompted the British government to impose tougher lockdown rules, scrapping initial plans to relax restrictions for Christmas.

Health minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohammad Isham Hj Jaafar said Brunei has yet to detect the new variant of the coronavirus in the sultanate but will step up measures to prevent it from reaching the country.

However, he said there are no current plans to issue a ban on all UK arrivals.

Over 40 countries have banned UK flights in the wake of discovering the fast-spreading coronavirus strain.

Operating on a reduced flying programme, Royal Brunei Airlines has one scheduled flight to London on January 2 and a return flight to Brunei the next day.

Travel restrictions for Brunei residents will still be maintained, while essential travellers who have sought permission from Brunei authorities to enter the country must produce a negative COVID-19 test result at least 72 hours before arrival and complete their mandatory self-isolation.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the Brunei-Singapore green lane arrangement will not be affected following reports of the city-state confirming its first case of the UK coronavirus variant on Wednesday.

Brunei has not reported any local transmissions of COVID-19 for 232 days. The national tally stands at 152 with no active cases.

First shipment of COVID-19 vaccine expected to arrive in Q2 2021

The minister said the mutated coronavirus strain was reported to be more contagious but there is no evidence to suggest that it is more deadly or would affect the vaccine’s effectiveness thus far.

The emergence of the new coronavirus variant highlights the importance of deploying safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19, he said.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the sultanate is expected to receive the first batch of the COVID-19 vaccine in the second quarter of next year.

It was previously reported that the health ministry had secured the vaccine through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility and also held talks with pharmaceutical companies to ensure access for Brunei’s population.

Singapore became the first country in Asia to receive the delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines on Monday.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham further assured that any vaccine rollout will be required to undergo a regulatory research process enforced by the Brunei Darussalam Medicines Control Authority.

The health ministry has also established a technical committee to develop and implement a “national vaccination strategy” for the distribution of the COVID-19 jab.

“Due to the limited global supply of vaccines, vaccine distribution will be done in phases and priority will be given to high-risk individuals first.

“When this vaccination programme is implemented, each individual can play their role by getting themselves vaccinated once a vaccine is offered. This will ensure that individuals can protect themselves, their loved ones and the wider community from COVID-19,” the minister added.