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A wet market in Singapore is cordoned off to limit entry and exit points. Photo: Reuters

Singapore’s ‘living with Covid-19’ plan includes relaxed rules, quarantine-free travel from September

  • The city state expects 80 per cent of its 5.7 million population to be fully vaccinated by September, paving the way for quarantine-free travel, with some curbs for vaccinated people eased even earlier
  • Signalling that its plan to push ahead with reopening the economy is still on the cards, authorities say they have already revised health and treatment protocols for patients with mild or no symptoms
Tighter restrictions for fully vaccinated residents in Singapore could be eased before August 18, with quarantine-free travel on the cards in the months ahead, finance minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday.

The city state expects 80 per cent of its 5.7 million people to be fully vaccinated by September, allowing for the possibility that residents who have received two doses would not need to serve a 14-day hotel quarantine when they return from overseas. And if a review in early August finds that the virus situation is stable, Wong said the government could review some restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals, ahead of the original expiry date for the rules on August 18.

“I know the restrictions have caused much inconvenience to everyone. We seek your forbearance and understanding,” said Wong.

Frustration as Singapore is ‘caught in transition’ to living with Covid-19

Wong’s remarks came as he and two other ministers leading Singapore’s management of Covid-19 briefed parliament and responded to criticism from the public over their move to reinstate coronavirus restrictions last week, just days after easing them.

Currently, people can only gather in pairs, dining out is banned and most gyms are closed.

Admitting that a recently announced “living with Covid-19” plan to treat the virus as endemic had hit speed bumps, Wong said Singapore just wanted to open up “at the correct juncture”.

While Singapore is widely considered one of the world’s success stories in managing the virus, it has battled the spread of the more contagious Delta variant for several months and suffered a setback when two new infection clusters involving karaoke lounges and a fishery port emerged in recent weeks, infecting more than 1,000 people. It is currently recording more than 100 new infections a day.

Wong pointed to how Britain, which reopened on Freedom Day last Monday, with 55 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, had infections rising to 50,000 a day. The Netherlands, which lifted all restrictions when 45 per cent of its population was vaccinated, saw cases surge to 10,000 a day within two weeks and has since reimposed restrictions, he added.

“While other countries may have come to terms with a certain level of Covid-19 cases and even deaths, this is not the choice we want to make,” Wong said. “Here, we look out for one another. We do not want to see large numbers of Covid-19 patients in intensive care, on oxygen supplementation, let alone succumb to the virus.”


England lifts Covid-19 restrictions as infections surge

England lifts Covid-19 restrictions as infections surge

The ministers said achieving vaccination goals was key in the reopening plan. Currently, 54 per cent of Singapore’s population has been fully vaccinated with either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines. The city state expects to hit 70 per cent by its National Day on August 9, and 80 per cent by early September.

Health minister Ong Ye Kung said those above the age of 70 remained the most vulnerable group, with just seven in 10 of them vaccinated. This group has a higher chance of severe illness when infected with Covid-19, and Singapore’s largest cluster has been spreading through wet and cooked food markets, where senior citizens usually shop.

The task force will therefore only consider introducing differentiated measures for those who are vaccinated, possibly in early August, when the elderly vaccination rate is projected to hit 75 per cent and two-thirds of the general population have been vaccinated.

This also depends on infection clusters being controlled and hospitalisation rates remaining low.

By September, when both the elderly and general population vaccination rates reach 80 per cent, Singapore hopes to allow larger groups of vaccinated residents to gather and travel without serving 14-day quarantine in hotels when returning. People may also eventually be allowed outside without masks.

Why Singaporeans are lining up for Sinovac jabs despite efficacy concerns

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong said this meant retail, the food and beverage sector, and businesses such as gyms and beauty salons would see a return of demand. Tourism and the events and exhibitions sectors should also see their capacities raised, he said.

But the differentiated measures will not last for long. Ong said this was “the most peculiar period of our transition” as Singapore builds up its resistance to the virus, and a “practical way” to open up some activities while protecting those who were vulnerable.

“When our whole society is very highly vaccinated and we have transitioned to living with Covid-19, we should make very little differentiation between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated,” Ong said.

He also outlined shifts in health protocols and said if Covid-19 was to be endemic, “having 200 or more cases a day may not be unusual at all”, pointing to how influenza season had infection rates of up to 1,000 a day.

When Singapore reaches an “effective vaccination” of the population with significantly reduced likelihood of developing serious diseases from infection, Ong said Covid-19 would be treated like the flu – without extensive contact tracing and quarantine in dedicated facilities, and hospitalisation only for those who were very ill.

Singapore has already shifted its health protocols, such as admitting more Covid-19 patients directly to community care facilities instead of hospitals. This is already the case for patients aged 17 to 45, and the government will now expand the age bracket to age 59.

It has also shortened the length of stays in hospitals and community care facilities from 21 days to 14 days for fully vaccinated people, and lets those who are fully inoculated serve quarantine at home instead of at government facilities.

At each stage of easing, the government will monitor hospitalisation and ICU cases. “We will ensure that these remain acceptable and stable, before we proceed to the next step”, Wong said, or “even pull back” if severe illnesses were to shoot up.

He said new Covid-19 variants that were more transmissible and lethal could yet emerge. Singapore would then need booster shots or updated vaccines, and may even face severe outbreaks requiring “restrictions again from time to time”.