BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The government will shorten the minimum interval between the second COVID-19 dose and booster shot from five to three months amid Omicron variant fears.

Announcing the move to bring forward booster shots, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar Monday said individuals aged 18 and above would be able to receive their third dose at least three months after the second jab, regardless of the COVID vaccine type.

The waiting time for booster jabs was revised following health authorities’ assessment that two vaccine doses may not provide adequate protection against the Omicron variant.

Studies found that antibody levels significantly decreased six months after the second jab and it has been suggested to speed up the third dose as the Omicron variant appeared to spread faster than Delta, the minister said at the daily COVID press briefing.

Countries that have also cut the timing of COVID booster shots to three months included South Korea and the United Kingdom, with the latter reporting its first Omicron death on Monday.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham added that getting a third jab against COVID is “especially important for those who intend to travel abroad”.

Brunei will ease travel restrictions on January 1 next year as part of its plans to enter the “early endemic phase”, nearly 22 months after borders were closed.

Adults who wish to take their booster jabs can walk in to any vaccination centres, while bookings can also be made via the BruHealth app at the end of this month.

The government earlier on Sunday said access to vaccine boosters would be expanded to all adults from December 17. The booster vaccination campaign was rolled out to frontline workers in October before it was administered to seniors last month.

A total of 16,001 people, or 3.7 percent of the population, have received their third dose so far.

MoH data also showed that 88.8 percent of Brunei residents have received two vaccine doses.

Education minister YB Dato Hj Hamzah. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Phased reopening of schools

Students in Years 10-13 will be the first group to resume in-person learning five times a week from January 3, 2022, Education Minister YB Dato Hj Hamzah Hj Sulaiman said at the press briefing.

However, Years 10-13 special needs students categorised in Level 3 can only attend face-to-face classes thrice a week under the ministry’s phased school reopening plans. The minister did not specify which special needs students are classified in Level 3.

Only fully vaccinated teachers and students can return to primary and secondary schools, sixth form centres and higher education institutions.

Some 98 percent of teachers are fully jabbed while 80 percent of students aged 12-17 have received two vaccine doses, according to education ministry figures.

All double-vaxxed students, teachers and non-teaching staff are still required to undergo antigen rapid tests once a week in the first stage of school reopening.

Asked about the ministry’s contingency plan in the event of school transmissions, YB Dato Hj Hamzah said “isolation rooms and procedures” will be set up at schools.

He added that “ring-fencing measures” have been devised to limit the spread of coronavirus at schools.

The minister said the phased reopening of schools enables the government to monitor the COVID situation and ease students into the “new normal”.

Schools are expected to move to the second phase of reopening two weeks after the first stage kicks in, unless there is a significant increase in coronavirus infections.

In the second stage, fully vaccinated students in Years 7-9 will restart in-person lessons five times a week.

Years 7-13 special needs students categorised under Level 3 will be able to attend face-to-face classes thrice a week during the second phase.

File photo: Primary school students resume in-person classes in June 2020 after three months of online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Yusri Adanan/The Scoop

Meanwhile, pupils aged 5 to 11 will continue online or home-based learning until further notice.

The government previously announced plans to inoculate children aged 5 to 11 early next year.

For tertiary education institutions, hybrid learning incorporating in-person classes and online lessons will be adopted based on the modules and teaching programmes.

YB Dato Hj Hamzah said partially vaccinated students can join face-to-face classes as long as they show proof of negative antigen test results. Unvaccinated students are barred from accessing campus facilities.

Only fully vaccinated students with negative antigen test results can participate in co-curricular activities or attend seminars and graduation ceremonies, which are capped at 75 percent or 300 people, whichever is lower.

Study abroad programmes, work placements and study visits are also allowed for individuals who completed the two-dose vaccine regimen.

Arabic schools restart in-person classes on January 3

Similar to mainstream schools, religious and Arabic schools will be opened in stages.

Joining the press briefing, the minister of religious affairs said Years 10-11 and pre-university students in Arabic schools and Institut Tahfiz Al-Quran Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah will resume in-person learning four times a week from January 3.

Online learning will be conducted once a week for Years 10-11 and pre-university students, while primary pupils at religious schools will continue home-based learning in the first phase, said YB Pehin Dato Hj Awg Badaruddin Pengarah DP Hj Awg Othman.

Religious affairs minister YB Pehin Dato Ustaz Hj Awg Badaruddin. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

In the second phase of reopening on January 17, Primary 5 and 6 religious school students as well as Year 7-9 Arabic school students will be allowed to attend face-to-face classes four times a week.

Double-vaxxed religious and Arabic school students must perform antigen tests once a fortnight and unvaccinated students will be required to conduct self-tests once a week.

Unvaccinated allowed to perform prayers at mosques

The religious affairs minister said worshippers aged 12 and above will be able to perform Friday prayers and the five daily prayers at mosques when the “early endemic phase” starts on December 15, including those who are unvaccinated.

Individuals who have not completed the two-dose regimen must produce a valid negative antigen rapid test certificate before they can enter places of worship, he said.

He added that the capacity limit of Friday prayers at mosques is subject to the “space inside and outside the mosque”, with worshippers positioned at a distance of 1 foot between large prayer mats.

Men can attend Friday prayers and the five daily prayers at mosques, while women are only allowed to perform the five daily prayers at places of worship.

Friday prayer congregants will no longer be required to make bookings on the BruHealth app.

Moreover, mosques can resume daily and weekly religious activities such as dawn and dusk lectures, as well as group recitation of Quran.

Religious classes for women are only allowed with a 50 percent capacity, while children’s Quran and Muqaddam classes every Friday morning are still not permitted.