Reopening borders vital to recovery, but COVID-19 vaccinations must first be sped up: Lawrence Wong

Reopening borders vital to recovery, but COVID-19 vaccinations must first be sped up: Lawrence Wong

Singapore Airlines crew members and travellers
Airline crew members and travellers are seen at Changi Airport in Singapore on Jan 14, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: Reopening Singapore's borders is vital to the country's economic recovery, but doing so prematurely could result in another wave of COVID-19 infections, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in Parliament on Monday (Jul 5).

The priority, therefore, is to speed up vaccinations, he said.

"There has been feedback from the business and investment community that Singapore might lose out to other hubs that are moving more aggressively to reopen their borders," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force. 

"We understand these concerns. But we are also very mindful that if we were to reopen prematurely before we reach high enough vaccination levels, we could end up with another wave of infections, and worse, a surge in hospitalisation and ICU cases."

In a ministerial statement outlining support measures amid the easing of some COVID-19 restrictions, Mr Wong said the reopening of borders is “an existential issue” for Singapore, which thrives on connectivity. 

READ: More help for SMEs in S$1.2 billion COVID-19 support package; no draw on reserves

Vaccinations will enable the country to progressively reopen and reconnect with the world, he said, adding that Singapore is able to reach a "very high level of vaccination coverage" in the next one to two months. 

Mr Wong added: “We are already discussing with other jurisdictions that have effectively controlled the infection, to work out travel corridors with them for vaccinated persons to travel more freely, either without the need for stay-home notice (SHN) or with a reduced SHN duration.”

And while Singapore will not be able to prevent occasional imported infections, Mr Wong said a high vaccination rate and the country's public health defences will prevent major outbreaks. 

BUILDING NEW CAPABILITIES 

Beyond the immediate term, Mr Wong said Singapore is investing in new capabilities and “building (itself) up strongly” for the future.

For instance, it is pushing ahead with digitalisation for businesses, intensifying efforts at upskilling the local workforce, as well as focusing on becoming a regional centre for green finance.

He added that the Emerging Stronger Taskforce has set out many recommendations to better position Singapore for future growth, and authorities will develop new initiatives over the coming months to speed up progress on these plans.

To achieve these goals, Mr Wong emphasised the need for partnerships across the community, and noted that the authorities will aim to scale up private-public collaborations. 

“PROMISING SIGNS”

Rounding up his speech, Mr Wong reiterated that Singapore is preparing to transit to a scenario where people learn to live normally with COVID-19.

He said there are “promising signs” from countries that are ahead of Singapore in vaccinations – such as Israel, where almost 60 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

Israel has opened up most of its economy, he noted, and despite a recent rise in cases largely due to the Delta variant, new outbreaks have not led to higher hospitalisation rates because of protection from the vaccine.

Mr Wong acknowledged a “deep longing” among residents to go back to how things were pre-pandemic, adding that some may feel a “sense of helplessness not knowing when normalcy will return, if at all”.  

"The reality is that COVID-19 is unlikely to go away anytime soon. But with vaccination and with improvements in treatment, we can make (COVID-19) look more like influenza in terms of morbidity and mortality," he said.


READ: The Big Read: As COVID-19 becomes endemic, it’s a race against time to get more seniors vaccinated

Mr Wong reiterated Singapore’s target to have two-thirds of its population fully vaccinated by National Day. This may be an “ambitious target”, but the country is making “steady progress” towards it, he said.

“We are also going all out to engage our seniors and get more of them vaccinated ... With high vaccination rates, we will then be able to reopen our economy safely."

Safe distancing rules will be progressively eased, especially for vaccinated people, he said, adding that residents can look forward to larger gatherings and events - and eventually travel. 

"This has been a long and difficult journey," said Mr Wong. "I know many are fatigued and tired. But we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel."

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Source: CNA/cl(gs)

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