BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – It is only “a matter of time” before the Omicron coronavirus variant arrives in Brunei as more people move across borders when travel curbs are loosened, the health minister said on Wednesday.

Holding his COVID press briefing on Brunei’s first day of entering the “early endemic phase”, YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said the fast-spreading Omicron is expected to be the dominant strain “in the next few months”.

“With the movement of people in and out of the country, it’s only a matter of time Omicron will be detected [in Brunei].

“Of course, we don’t want that to happen if possible. We should follow [health protocols] to prevent it from happening,” he said.

Noting that Omicron could be twice as infectious as the predominant Delta variant, the minister said Brunei can manage the impact of Omicron with booster jabs and health guidelines.

While no Omicron cases have been confirmed in Brunei thus far, the health ministry is pushing Bruneians to take a third dose at least three months after their second jab to keep people protected against the heavily-mutated COVID variant.

Even as more restrictions have been relaxed during the endemic phase, the sultanate has maintained public health measures such as mandating the wearing of masks and use of the BruHealth contact tracing app.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Omicron had been detected in 77 countries, less than a month after South Africa discovered the new strain.

Speaking to reporters during a media briefing on Tuesday, WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned countries not to dismiss Omicron as mild as it is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems. I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis,” he was quoted as saying in a UN news report.

A woman receives her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Indoor Stadium on Jul 5, 2021. Photo: Rudolf Portillo/The Scoop

A South African study found that two Pfizer vaccine doses are not enough to prevent Omicron infections, but may offer 70 percent protection against being hospitalised with Omicron.

Brunei became the first country in Southeast Asia to hit a double-dose vaccination rate of 90 percent on Wednesday, while 3.9 percent of the population has received booster shots.The 90 percent vaccination milestone was achieved a day before Brunei moved to the “early endemic phase” of its COVID recovery plan as residents learn to co-exist with the coronavirus.

With the shift towards endemic COVID, YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said “minimal disruptions” to daily activities are expected and “the situation will gradually improve”.

MoH will no longer provide details of new or active clusters, changing the way it reports the COVID situation during the endemic phase.

No plans to remove UK from green travel list

The health minister said Brunei currently has no plans to remove the UK from its green travel list, despite the rapid rise of Omicron cases in Britain that prompted 15 countries to ban British travellers.

The UK was included in Brunei’s new green travel list, along with Australia, Singapore and China — including Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

Inbound and outbound travellers in the green list will not be required to seek travel approval from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) when Brunei resumes international travel on January 1, 2022 after a 22-month border closure.

Under the travel guidelines released on the PMO website, incoming passengers from countries in the green list will also be exempted from the 14-day quarantine if they produce negative PCR and antigen rapid test (ART) results before and after arrival. They must also take antigen tests at one of the 12 designated ART certification centres three days after their arrival.

A passenger collects her bags after arriving at Changi Airport. Brunei is reopening its borders to non-essential travel from Jan 1, 2022, and will allow quarantine-free travel to and from Singapore, China, the UK and Australia. Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/Reuters

Asked how were countries chosen in the green list, YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the four countries in the current list is “a trial” to determine whether the travel system works.

“There are quite a lot of countries to include [in the green list], but we chose the four countries first as a trial.

“It depends on their healthcare system, so maybe more countries will be added if the travel list goes well during the trial,” he continued.

Online survey on reopening of child care centres

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham also called on the public, especially parents and guardians, to fill out an online survey on the reopening of child care centres.

The government is seeking public feedback before it decides to allow the resumption of child care centre services.

Survey respondents have to answer a set of 12 questions, including whether they agree daycare centres should restart operations in January next year.

The survey is open from December 15 to 19.