BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Non-essential travel will be allowed once 80 percent of the population has been vaccinated for COVID-19, the minister of home affairs said Wednesday.

This means residents will be allowed to leave the country for holiday travel and the sultanate will also reopen its borders to tourists.

However, residents will only be able to travel to places on a ‘green list’, comprising of countries considered low risk for COVID-19, YB Pehin Dato Dr Hj Abu Bakar Hj Apong told reporters after the daily COVID presser.

Brunei is likely to hit the 80 percent target by early December, known as the ‘endemic phase’ of the government’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

The endemic phase will see the opening of air travel, but the reopening of land and the sea borders depends on the COVID situation in Brunei’s neighbouring countries, the home affairs minister added.

Brunei has severely restricted inbound and outbound travel since March last year, with essential travelers needing to apply for an entry or exit permit from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Minister of Home Affairs YB Pehin Dato Hj Abu Bakar. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Next week, Brunei will enter the ‘transition phase’ of the COVID-19 recovery plan when it reaches a 70% vaccination rate.

Speaking at the daily COVID-19 press conference, the second minister of finance and economy said the government will monitor infection rates before reopening air travel.

“When we reach 80 percent, if the data doesn’t show anything concerning, we can think about reopening air travel, but the land border won’t be open yet,” YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah said.

Inbound and outbound travelers also need to be fully vaccinated and comply with testing and quarantine requirements.

“The required documents and declaration form needs to be filled out online … It’s already been thought out. When the time comes, we will announce this,” the minister said.

He said there is no specific date for restarting non-essential travel, adding that a committee will assess the situation when Brunei reaches 80 percent vaccination coverage.

“We can’t promise too early because we will monitor existing data during the transition phase before we ease restrictions.”

During the transition phase, essential travelers will still need to apply for approval from the Prime Minister’s Office, YB Pehin Dato Dr Hj Abu Bakar added, but the government is reviewing whether this requirement will be lifted in the endemic phase.

What is a travel ‘green list’?

Brunei aims to establish a ‘green list’ of countries deemed safe enough for the government to reduce COVID restrictions such as quarantine time.

Countries will be assessed according to risk, taking into account their infection and vaccination rates, said acting deputy permanent secretary at the health ministry, Dr Hjh Anie Haryani Hj Abdul Rahman, who is also part of the secretariat to the COVID-19 steering committee.

“When we say that ‘the steering committee is considering opening up the borders’ it does not mean that we will just open up and let go. There are still health, quarantine and tests requirements that must be followed,” she said.

“We don’t have a list of countries that will be put on this list for now. So the steering committee still needs to meet and decide on this matter,” she told reporters in a recent interview.

Brunei will also consider establishing ‘green lanes’ with countries that have a low risk profile, and already has reciprocal travel arrangements with Singapore and China.

This file photo from June 2020 shows Bangar Town in the Temburong district. Tourism has been one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Yusri Adanan/The Scoop

Dr Justin Wong, head of the health ministry’s disease control division, said there is understandably a degree of public anxiety regarding the reopening of borders.

“From a public health perspective, travel and border controls are useful in the early stages of the pandemic when you have very few cases within one border.

“Given the COVID situation in Brunei was essentially COVID-zero for a very long time, this is why we had border control restrictions because we wanted to prevent new cases from coming in,” he said.

“But when you have widespread transmission as we currently do, it may be that some countries have better immunological situations than us. So the risk of transmission from one country to another almost becomes manageable in relation to the risk of domestic transmission.”

He added that very few imported cases have been reported in the second wave, and that all inbound travellers are quarantined and tested for COVID-19.