December 10, 2021
SEOUL – Singaporean Jannah Monjiat and her husband landed in Seoul on a vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flight last Sunday (Dec 5), eager to revisit familiar sights and enjoy what they love most about South Korea – the food and culture.
Little did they expect that newly-imposed anti-virus rules would keep them from dining at some of their favourite joints.
The day after the couple arrived, South Korea imposed a “vaccine pass” system for public spaces such as restaurants, cafes, libraries and movie theatres requiring groups of two and above to show they are fully vaccinated before they are allowed entry.
The system was previously limited to high-risk venues such as bars, gyms and saunas, but was expanded to include other spaces as the health authorities sought to contain the spread of the new Omicron variant and protect the unvaccinated 16.6 per cent of the population.
South Korea on Thursday reported 7,102 new cases of the coronavirus, including 20 of the new Omicron variant. This brings the total tally to 496,584 (60 Omicron), according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
VTL travellers from Singapore have the same rights to access as fully-vaccinated Korean citizens, under the bilateral VTL agreement that went into effect Nov 15
But not every business owner may be aware of this, and may turn away patrons for not having a vaccine pass they recognise.
Ms Monjiat told The Straits Times that she received upon landing at Incheon Airport an English-Korean info sheet to show to Korean business owners during her 17-day stay, informing them how to scan the QR code on her vaccination certificate.
“Not everyone is aware of the VTL and how to check our vaccination status, so they might think we are trying to scam them,” said Ms Monjiat, a 34-year-old producer.
“Some restaurants strictly accept vaccine passes only, so we could not get in (without the pass). We speak very little Korean and we didn’t want to bother the restaurant staff, so we bought takeout and ate at the park instead.
Similar concerns were shared on a VTL Telegram chat group that has over 1,100 members.
Some members said they managed to gain access to places by showing their Singapore vaccination certificate or Trace Together app when asked, while others said they were denied entry as they did not have a vaccine pass.
The expanded vaccine pass system also left many long-term foreign residents vaccinated overseas in the lurch, as the Korean government has been slow in accepting overseas vaccinations for non-Koreans.
But on Thursday, it announced it would immediately allow foreign residents to register their overseas vaccinations at public health centres and receive vaccine passes through the smartphone app COOV (short for Corona Overcome)
This would also allow foreigners living in the country to register for booster shots in due time.
The move came after weeks of lobbying by major embassies including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and India, who all urged the South Korean government to give foreigners vaccinated overseas “the same access rights to public facilities”.
Those who flout the vaccine pass system can be penalised.
Business owners caught for not enforcing the vaccine pass system can be fined up to 3 million won (S$3,480) or ordered to close for good, while visitors who fail to show their vaccine pass can be fined 100,000 won each time.
However, there are no social distancing ambassadors going around to make sure rules are followed.
Singaporean Ken Ng, who runs a cafe located in Hongdae, a youth hangout in Seoul, said the onus is on business owners to check vaccine passes.
“Everyone should be informed of the important changes in regulations so there is no misunderstanding,” he told ST. “But sometimes things change too quickly and we are not informed clearly what to do, and that can cause inconveniences.”
How VTL travellers prove they are fully vaccinated
A vaccine pass allows fully vaccinated individuals in South Korea to gain entry into places that require proof of vaccination status.
It can be viewed using the smartphone app COOV, or COOV-linked QR codes generated by two of the country’s most popular apps, search engine Naver and messaging app KakaoTalk.
The QR codes also allow users to check in to places and leave a record for contact tracing.
Singaporeans travelling in South Korea under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme may find it harder to convince people to accept their vaccination status.
All travellers receive an English-Korean information sheet at Incheon Airport that they can show to Korean business owners to inform them how to check their vaccination status. This requires the business owner to use his own COOV app to scan the QR code on the traveller’s vaccination certificate to confirm if the person is inoculated.
But not all business owners are aware of the arrangement and may be unsure and reluctant to do this.
Singaporean Jannah Monjiat and her husband, who arrived in the country on Sunday and will stay till Dec 22, have been denied entry into some restaurants.
“Our advice is to stay calm and don’t let it dampen your entire trip, because there are always alternatives such as ordering takeout so you can enjoy your meal at the park or at your accommodation,” she said.