SINGAPORE: Among the travellers from higher-risk countries and regions who entered Singapore without pre-departure tests between Nov 18 and Dec 27, none of those who tested positive for COVID-19 resulted in local transmission, said Minister for Education Lawrence Wong on Monday (Jan 4).
Providing figures during his ministerial statement in Parliament, Mr Wong said more than 12,000 of those travellers, including Singaporeans and permanent residents, entered Singapore during that period.
About 100 of them, or 0.85 per cent, tested positive for COVID-19. “Importantly, none of these cases has resulted in local transmission,” said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force.
Since Nov 18, all non-citizen and non-permanent resident travellers from higher-risk countries or regions travelling to Singapore are required to take a COVID-19 within 72 hours before their departure.
"We have not required this of citizens and PRs because we do not want to place additional barriers for them to return home if they have urgent need to do so," said Mr Wong, adding that children aged six and below are also exempted from the requirement as paediatric testing services may not be easily available in some countries.
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Singapore's COVID-19 containment measures depend on good management of the hotels which are used as stay-home notice facilities, said Mr Wong, noting that these facilities have strict protocols such as segregating people on stay-home notice from other hotel guests.
“Even with these multiple layers of safeguards, the risk of leaks, though small, remains,” added Mr Wong, citing the recent incident at Mandarin Orchard hotel in which investigations were launched into 13 imported cases for a “potential link” among them.
The 13 cases who served their stay-home notice at the hotel were observed to have “high genetic similarity” despite coming from different countries, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Dec 19.
This suggests that the cases were "likely infected from a similar source", authorities said then, adding that they cannot exclude that transmissions could have occurred at Mandarin Orchard hotel.
The hotel was given the green light to reopen on Saturday after MOH found no further transmission beyond the 13 cases. All hotel employees swabbed under “special testing operations” have also tested negative for COVID-19 using the polymerase chain reaction test.
Epidemiological investigations are still under way to determine the source of the infection among the 13 cases, said MOH on Monday in response to CNA’s queries.
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“Based on our preliminary investigations, there have been no breaches in the SHN (stay-home notice) protocols at Mandarin Orchard hotel. But investigations do suggest that infection protocols can be improved, for example through better crowd regulation as well as having good ventilation systems to circulate more fresh air,” said Mr Wong.
“We will continue to work closely with all SHN (stay-home notice) hotels to ensure that infection prevention protocols are robust.”
As an “additional safeguard”, all hotel staff who come into contact with people on stay-home notice will now be placed on a 14-day rostered routine testing regime, he announced.
IMPACT OF VACCINE ON BORDER MEASURES
The Government is “carefully” studying whether border measures can be eased for people who have been vaccinated, Mr Wong said.
“The main benefit of the vaccine is that it offers protection to the vaccinated individual. It is likely that vaccination can also reduce the risk of transmission of the virus. But at present we still do not know the extent of the reduction,” he told the House.
Adding that the Government is “very carefully” monitoring ongoing studies on the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing transmission risk, Mr Wong said: “If there is clear evidence that transmission risks can be lowered significantly, then we will certainly consider some relaxation to the SHN regime for vaccinated travellers.”
For now, a “more cautious” approach will be taken and vaccinated travellers will continue to be subject to prevailing border measures and stay-home notice requirements.
“We will fine-tune our approach over time, once we better understand the effect of the vaccine,” said Mr Wong.
Responding to follow-up questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) after his ministerial statement, Mr Wong said that until the effects of the vaccine are understood, Singapore will not be making any changes to its existing domestic or travel safety measures.
“But if the results indicate that vaccinations do offer protection to others, then clearly we can make some adjustments,” he added.
For example, under the current measures, all concertgoers have to take a pre-event COVID-19 test. But with more evidence that the vaccine can prevent transmission risks, someone who has been vaccinated may not need to take such tests, said Mr Wong.
For travellers, the extent of stay-home notice conditions or number of COVID-19 tests they have to take could also be adjusted based on whether they are vaccinated, he added.
"LET'S NOT RUSH TO MAKE BIG CHANGES": LAWRENCE WONG
Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai from the Progress Singapore Party then asked the minister if Singapore can further reopen and clarified that he was “not trivialising” the Government’s effort in entering Phase 3.
“However, I'm also reflecting some sentiments of many Singaporeans that since there is not much change from Phase 2 to Phase 3, we would like to know a longer road map, whereby we'll get closer to the pre-COVID situation. Although it's a new normal, we'd like to see this new normal to be far more liberal than before,” he added.
In response, Mr Wong noted that while Mr Leong and some people may think the changes from Phase 2 to Phase 3 are “not very meaningful”, increasing group gatherings to eight, up from groups of five, is already “adding a lot of risk”.
“I would say don't sweat the small stuff. It may appear small, but these are significant moves that we are making. I think people do appreciate that they can meet in larger groups, meet with their family members, meet with their loved ones. And each of these times, every time we make one step forward, relax a measure, we are adding risk and all of the risks do add up,” he continued.
“It's not just simply saying ‘the situation looks very good, let's keep opening up’. But each time we make a move we have to be very sure that we have the tools and the enablers to keep the infection under control.”
While vaccinations would allow Singapore to open up further, a “significant number” of people can only get vaccinated by the third quarter of 2021, said Mr Wong.
“So between now and the third quarter of the year, let's not rush to make big changes and big relaxations. We have to do this in a controlled manner, recognising that the risks are there and the virus is raging everywhere in the world. And there are new strains emerging. Let's do this in a very controlled, careful, calibrated manner,” he added.
“Even after we have had a lot of people in Singapore being vaccinated. It doesn't mean that everything is over, because no country is safe until everyone in the world is safe, and it will take some time for the whole world to get vaccinated.
“But if your hope is to get back to a pre-COVID sort of normal. I think we still have to be circumspect and we still have to be realistic ... So, we have to be prepared to live with COVID for quite a while.”