BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The government on Monday announced a three-phase COVID-19 pandemic exit plan that will finally see Brunei loosen its 18-month travel restrictions when 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
The easing of travel curbs could come as soon as next month, with authorities saying that 70 percent vaccination coverage is expected to be reached by the end of November.
Under the second or “transition phase” of the National COVID-19 Recovery Plan, inbound and outbound travel to low-risk countries will be allowed for fully vaccinated individuals and a “green” list will be drawn up to guide travellers on quarantine requirements.
The travel ban has been in place since the pandemic began in March last year, with only essential travellers permitted to enter and leave the country after seeking approval from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Outlining details of the COVID exit roadmap, Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah said the recovery plan consists of the preparation, transition and endemic phases. The latter is set to take effect when the country hits its 80 percent vaccination target.
The exit strategy plan aims to “facilitate a safe transition from pandemic to endemic, with hopes of minimising disruptions to everyday life”, the minister said.
However, officials also stressed that lifting of restrictions would also depend on the state of the healthcare system.
Transition to living with endemic COVID-19
Apart from the easing of travel curbs in the transition phase, schools, workplaces, business premises as well as mosques and other places of worship will reopen with a cap on the number of people.
In addition, social gatherings will be allowed with limited capacity when 70 percent of Brunei’s residents are fully jabbed.
YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin said the relaxing of restrictions did not mean other public health control measures were no longer needed, such as the mask mandate.
“Even when we’re in endemic phase, the committee will still provide certain [guidelines] to follow. It doesn’t mean that we’ll have total freedom once we reach the endemic phase,” he added.
The government will also no longer report daily coronavirus cases when the country moves to the transition phase. Instead, only the weekly average of confirmed infections will be announced.
During the endemic stage, COVID-19 will be treated as a seasonal illness with quarantine orders only issued to a selected group of cases.
Night curfew extended until November 14
The sultanate is currently in the first, or preparation phase of the COVID exit strategy plan, which involves the start of the vaccine drive for adolescents aged 12 to 17 and extension of the 8pm curfew until November 14.
“The extension of “Operasi Pulih” is a step to prepare Brunei towards its recovery process in facing a new normal, by controlling [the spread] of COVID-19 and increasing the vaccination coverage,” said YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin.
Grappling with its worst outbreak fuelled by the Delta variant, Brunei has been under a partial lockdown for over 11 weeks.
The minister said the night curfew, introduced on October 4, has resulted in “positive results” since last week, with the reproductive number — average number of secondary infections — decreasing.
Health experts said maintaining a reproductive number of one is the minimum requirement in moving towards an endemic COVID-19. Brunei’s reproductive number has stayed below one since October 20.
YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin added that the number of critical patients is stable and did not show a steep increase despite high daily infection rates.
Twenty-one people were warded in the intensive care unit on Monday, down from 23 a day earlier.
Moreover, the doubling time – the time it takes for cases to increase two-fold – is now longer.
Walk-in vaccinations start on Tuesday
Walk-in vaccinations will start on Tuesday as the number of people getting inoculated is declining, the health minister said during the COVID presser Monday.
The vaccination rate has slowed in the past three weeks as 81.1 percent of the population has already received at least one vaccine dose. Some 56.7 percent of residents have completed their full vaccination regimen.
Asked about the number of COVID-19 patients who were unvaccinated, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said 78 percent were either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, while 22 percent of cases were fully jabbed.
Daily cases hit 271, 11 new clusters identified
The health ministry detected 271 new coronavirus infections on Monday, raising the overall tally to 12,384.
This is the third day in a row that daily cases topped 200.
A 55-year-old COVID-19 patient died overnight but her death was not attributed to the virus as she had pre-existing health issues. The death toll stands at 53.
Eleven new clusters have emerged, including the staff quarters of Sahid Sdn Bhd, Negalang Unat Site and Mashor General Contractor. The other clusters involved individual households.
Six clusters were closed – Aker, The Mall, Freshco Batu Satu, Permata Leo Vessel and two household clusters.
Battling a surge in cases linked to migrant worker dormitories in the past three weeks, the government has set up a committee to monitor the welfare and living conditions of migrant workers.
Home Affairs Minister said YB Pehin Dato Hj Awg Abu Bakar Hj Apong said the committee will ensure that safety protocols are in place and that overcrowding is prevented at migrant worker dormitories.
Responding to a reporter’s question, he said employers that did not meet health and safety standards will be required to relocate their workers.