SINGAPORE: Barring any super-spreader events or large clusters, Singapore “should be on track” to bringing its COVID-19 outbreak under control, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (May 31).
In an address to the nation, Mr Lee added that if the number of community cases falls further, the country “should be” able to relax existing restrictions under the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) period after Jun 13, the date that they are currently set to last until.
His speech providing an update on the COVID-19 situation comes almost three weeks after Singapore introduced fresh restrictions on social gatherings and activities, following the emergence of several clusters of infections.
“We will know for sure in another week or so. Meanwhile, I count on everyone to keep up our efforts and stay vigilant,” said Mr Lee. He also encouraged members of the public to go out only for essential purposes, and to see a doctor immediately if they feel unwell.
READ: Singapore must test 'faster, more liberally and extensively'; DIY tests soon available over the counter, says PM Lee
READ: Singapore ‘nudging’ in right direction with drop in unlinked cases over past two weeks: Ong Ye Kung
SINGAPORE IN A BETTER POSITION TODAY
Mr Lee said that the country is “in a much better position today”, compared to a year ago when it had its first big outbreak of infections.
This is because it has built up testing and contact tracing capabilities, while its vaccination programme is also “well advanced”.
But new variants have emerged, and will continue to do so, he said, and a more infectious virus means Singapore will have to “raise (its) game” to keep the pandemic under control.
Specifically, Singapore will have to step up testing, contract tracing and vaccinations, he said.
TESTING TO BECOME PART OF NEW NORMAL
Firstly, testing must be done “faster, and more liberally and extensively”, Mr Lee said, adding that Singapore will be shifting its approach to testing.
He explained that many different tests have become available, such as antigen rapid tests, saliva tests, breathalysers, and even Do-It-Yourself tests, available at pharmacies, that are coming on-stream.
“These alternatives to PCR tests help us detect and isolate persons quickly when they are most infectious. This will be a big help in slowing down the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
With tests becoming faster and cheaper, routine testing can be done at more workplaces, restaurants and shopping malls, and for individuals whose jobs involve coming into close contact with many people, such as educators and taxi drivers, he said.
“Henceforth we will not only test to identify infections when a new case pops up. We will also routinely and regularly test people who appear well, in normal work or social or community settings, to make these places safe,” he said.
This will provide confidence to resume larger-scale events.
“Therefore, you should expect routine, large-scale, fast and simple testing to be part of our new normal,” he said.
READ: Ample supply of food and essential items in Singapore: Gan Kim Yong on supply concerns arising from Malaysia lockdown
SPEEDING UP VACCINATIONS
Good progress has been made with vaccinations since December, said Mr Lee, adding that vaccinations will be sped up further in the next two months, with first dose vaccinations as a priority.
The country’s 40 vaccination centres island-wide are running smoothly, but the constraint is vaccine supply, he added.
The good news is that since the last update by the multi-ministry task force against COVID-19, authorities have received confirmation of faster vaccine deliveries over the next two months, he said.
These supplies mean the vaccine will be extended to everyone, even sooner than expected – with the next group being students.
READ: Singapore accelerates national COVID-19 vaccination programme, students the next group to be inoculated
“In this latest outbreak, we have seen more cases of children getting infected, in schools and tuition centres. The children were not seriously ill, but parents are naturally worried.
“Therefore, we will take advantage of the June holidays to vaccinate students,” he said.
Bookings open on Tuesday, with priority given to graduating cohorts for O, N, and A-Levels, as well as special needs students.
This will be followed by students aged 12 and above, including students in Institutes of Higher Learning. Finally, young adults 39 years and younger will be vaccinated.
Contact tracing will also be done more quickly and more widely, he said.
Mr Lee said such operations have already vastly improved, owing to tools such as TraceTogether and SafeEntry, and Singaporeans’ “self-discipline, public spirit and support of (the tools)".
But the net for contact tracing will now be cast wider.
“Our experience has shown that if a close contact is infected, he is quite likely to infect others who stay with him in the same household,” said Mr Lee.
READ: Household members of people under COVID-19 quarantine now required to self-isolate at home: MOH
Therefore, when a close contact of an infected case is identified, that first-degree contact will be tested and isolated.
But now, his or her household members will also be notified to isolate themselves immediately, without waiting to see whether that first-degree contact tests positive, said Mr Lee.
“This more aggressive approach will help us to shut down clusters more quickly.”
ENCOURAGING THE ELDERLY TO GET VACCINATED
Mr Lee also made a “special pitch” to the elderly.
Nearly three-quarters of the elderly – 760,000 senior citizens aged 60 and above – have had at least one jab or booked a slot already, but 280,000 have still not yet booked appointments, he said.
He urged this group to come forward, adding that the process has been made more convenient for them.
“If you are above 60, you can now walk into any vaccination centre, and get vaccinated on the spot. No need to register. No need to book in advance.”
Those who are immobile can be jabbed during home visits by medical professionals.
Today, nearly four in 10 residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine, but the next target is to get two-thirds of residents vaccinated with at least the first dose, said Mr Lee.
This goal should be achieved by early July, if supplies come in as planned, he added.
THE NEW NORMAL
Painting a picture of the new normal, Mr Lee said he does not expect COVID-19 to disappear.
“It will remain with humankind, and become endemic. The virus will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come.”
This means small outbreaks of COVID-19 will occur in Singapore from time to time too, he said.
“Our aim must be to keep the community as a whole safe, while accepting that some people may get infected every now and then. Just as we do with the common flu or dengue fever, which we now manage through public health measures and personal precautions,” Mr Lee said.
Living with the COVID-19 virus also means not completely closing Singapore’s borders.
“We will not be able to prevent some infected persons from slipping through from time to time. But as long as our population is mostly vaccinated, we should be able to trace, isolate, and treat the cases that pop up, and prevent a severe and disastrous outbreak,” he said.