SINGAPORE – After hearing about the launch of a Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) between Singapore and the United States, Ms Andrea Ko arranged to fly back to the Republic in December.
But the Singaporean, who is staying in Texas in the US, was dismayed to find out that she still has to serve a stay-home notice (SHN) upon returning, as her US vaccination records would not be recognised as official proof by the Singapore authorities.
Ms Ko received her two doses of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine in a vaccination drive organised by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, but Singapore does not currently recognise her as vaccinated as Oklahoma state is not involved with the Smart Health Card system allowed by the VTL as proof of vaccination.
Singaporeans told The Straits Times that the lack of standardisation among vaccination certificate issuers in the US has continued to be a barrier for those seeking to return here under the VTL scheme.
“I am a graduate student in the US and am hard-pressed for time, and I would not be able to return to Singapore if I had to serve my SHN as it wouldn’t be worth it,” the 22-year-old wrote in an e-mail to her MPMaliki Osman and copied to The Straits Times.
“That one week (of SHN) is precious time (that could be) spent with friends and family – people I hold dear to my heart but have been separated for thousands of miles for way too long a time now.”
Most of the countries on the VTL scheme have a unified national system for issuing vaccination certificates. But Canada and the US currently do not.
Canada is working to develop one, while the US relies on multiple issuers such as individual state authorities, pharmacies, supermarket chains like Walmart and various other healthcare providers.
To ensure the authenticity of the vaccination records, Singapore requires certificates to be issued in the Smart Health Card format by trusted issuers in the US and Canada. These issuers must also be a Canadian province, or under the CommonTrust Network (CTN) or Vaccination Credential Initiative.
But not all issuers in the US and Canada fulfil these requirements.
Previously, travellers from the US could rely on a third-party service provider called VaccineCheck that would independently verify their vaccination records and issue its own CTN-recognised Smart Health Card for a fee.
For a time, this was accepted as proof of vaccination for the VTL, and step-by-step guides were put up online in traveller forums and even by Singapore Airlines, so that those with vaccination records that were not recognised could port them over for travel on the VTL.
But VaccineCheck was dropped from CTN’s list of trusted issuers on Oct 28, which meant its Smart Health Card is no longer recognised by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) which handles the VTL scheme.
This has left those like Ms Ko and fellow student Natalie Koh in a bind, as they had hoped to rely on VaccineCheck to return home.
In her account published by local news outlet TodayOnline, Ms Koh said she was vaccinated through the University of Illinois in Chicago with two jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but does not have a Smart Health Card.
She wrote to the Safe Travel Office under the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority twice to explain her situation, but to no avail.
“Twice, I received what appeared to be template replies from its officers, who stated that I would not be allowed to enter Singapore through a vaccinated travel lane without an ‘authenticated proof of vaccination’,” she said.
When contacted, Singapore Airlines said it updated its communications to customers after VaccineCheck was no longer listed as an issuer of Smart Health Cards under the CTN.
“Smart Health Cards issued by them are no longer recognised as proof of vaccination under Singapore’s regulations for designated VTL flights,” said its spokesman. “Singapore Airlines has updated our communications to our customers to reflect this change.”
VaccineCheck chief executive Chris Nickerson told The Straits Times that it had “made many attempts” to contact CAAS and the Singapore government on how it could become a recognised issuer of verified vaccination records after its Smart Health Cards stopped being recognised by the VTL scheme.
Mr Nickerson said he was told that issuers of Smart Health Cards must be either directly connected to the US’ states vaccine registries, or are the ones providing the vaccines, such as pharmacies.
This is despite VaccineCheck working with local health departments and public health officials to verify customers’ applications with state registry verified health records, he added.
“We have over 2,000 travelers that have signed a petition to allow for additional US based providers of verified health records for travel back to Singapore,” he added. The company has posted the petition on its website.
For Ms Ko, who said she got “the same stock reply as everyone else” despite the appeal letter from her MP, the current prospects are to spend a good part of her trip home on SHN, or to forego returning for another half a year.
“All my plans are up in the air, the only thing I can do is pray that (the Singapore authorities) will accept my proof of vaccine by the time I (am supposed to) fly in mid-December,” she said.
The Straits Times has contacted the CAAS for comment.