BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Starting November 19, fully vaccinated individuals can return to workplaces and dine at restaurants as the government lifts a raft of COVID-19 curbs earlier than expected.

Announcing Brunei’s planned partial reopening of the economy on Tuesday, the second minister of finance and economy said businesses will be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity once the country enters the “transition phase” of its three-stage pandemic exit plan.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah said the reopening of businesses applies to eateries, cinemas, hair and beauty salons, markets, arcades and indoor playgrounds.

For the country to proceed to the transition phase, at least 70 percent of the population must be fully jabbed against the coronavirus.

Brunei was initially expected to hit the 70 percent double dose vaccination rate at the end of this month, but the health ministry has opened walk-in vaccinations from Tuesday to ramp up the administration of second doses.

Speaking at the COVID-19 press conference, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the 70 percent vaccination target is within reach by November 19.

“To ensure this is achieved, we opened walk-vaccinations at night and the whole day from 8am to 10pm on Friday and Sunday [at the Indoor Stadium]. We need about 13,000 people to [get their second dose] to reach the target, so that’s our hope,” he added.

Earlier, the government had put on hold the inoculation of adults awaiting their second dose for two weeks to make way for the teenage vaccine rollout that began on Monday.

As of Monday, 67 percent of the population has completed the two-dose regimen while 84 percent has received at least one vaccine dose.

The easing of restrictions will come 15 weeks after Brunei imposed a partial lockdown amid its worst outbreak driven by the Delta variant.

However, the sultanate has seen a steady decrease in new coronavirus infections in the past 10 days, averaging fewer than 100 cases.

Asked whether the government is expecting COVID-19 cases to spike once restrictions have been relaxed, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin said he is confident that Brunei’s high vaccination rate will prevent the country from experiencing a new wave of infections.

“What’s important is for the country to prioritise vaccination,” he said.

Second Minister of Finance and Economy YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Noting that over 90 percent of the elderly population has been fully vaccinated, the minister said Brunei now has enough vaccines to offer booster shots following the arrival of 359,190 Pfizer vaccine doses last week.

“Maybe this is a trial for us to have this transition phase before we enter the endemic phase.

“It’s important for us to monitor the phases, analyse existing data [and decide] whether we can proceed with the endemic phase,” he added.

Brunei is not aiming for zero coronavirus cases and plans to shift to living with endemic COVID-19 when the vaccination coverage reaches 80 percent.

Vaccine mandate for teachers, non-teaching staff

The government has mandated teachers, non-teaching school personnel, staff of child care centers and education trainers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

However, those with health conditions such as allergies will be excluded from this requirement as long as a medical exemption certificate is provided.

Earlier in August, the government made it mandatory for all frontliners to take the COVID-19 vaccine, including healthcare workers, immigration and customs officers, police and military personnel.

Under the transition phase, fully vaccinated students will be permitted to return to universities, technical and vocational schools and other higher education institutions.

All students were forced to move to online learning since the second COVID-19 wave began on August 7.

Academic personnel and students will also be required to take antigen rapid tests every two weeks.

The government has yet to decide on the reopening of primary and secondary schools, but the second minister of finance and economy said preparations are under way for in-person learning to resume among younger students.

Fully vaccinated employees can return to workplaces

Civil servants who have taken two vaccine doses will be allowed to return to their workplaces from November 19.

The government will continue its shortened working hours from 8am to 2pm, and all public sector workers who work in the office must take antigen rapid tests every two weeks.

Meanwhile, sports facilities and driving schools can also restart their operations in the transition phase.

Families of up to 30 fully vaccinated people will also be able to hold gatherings at their homes, depending on the size of the home.

The government further said the number of worshippers at mosques, surau and prayer halls will be capped at 200 or 50 percent capacity, whichever is lower.

The religious affairs ministry last month said the first stage of reopening would see mosques open for the five daily prayers, as well as mass Friday prayers.

Health guidelines such as social distancing of at least 1.5 metres, using the BruHealth mobile app, and wearing of face masks will be maintained at all public venues.

Night curfew extended until November 30

Before the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in the transition phase, night movement curbs will be extended until November 30 but curfew hours will be shortened from 10pm to 4am from November 19 onwards.

The 8pm to 4am stay-at-home directive, known as Operasi Pulih, will end on November 18.

Joining the press briefing on Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister YB Pehin Dato Hj Awg Abu Bakar Hj Apong said 85 employees from 67 companies were found to have violated night curfew rules since October 4.

41 new cases detected

The health ministry reported 41 new COVID cases in the past 24 hours, raising the cumulative confirmed infections to 13,905.

One of the new cases was imported from Manila.

Three new clusters were identified on Tuesday, including the staff quarters of ABMS Sdn Bhd and two family clusters.

Among the 870 active cases, seven were placed on a ventilator and four require oxygen supplementation.