SINGAPORE: People must be prepared for a Phase 3 that could last for a “prolonged period” of a year or more, said Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong on Wednesday (Nov 4).
This is even as the multi-ministry task force tackling COVID-19 has laid out a roadmap which could see the country enter the third phase of its reopening by the end of this year.
Mr Gan, who co-chairs the task force, said in Parliament that Phase 3 would not be a return to the pre-pandemic status quo. It will instead be a “new normal” that will last until either the rest of the world gets the virus under control, or an effective treatment or vaccine is developed.
“In this context, we need to put in place the measures and equip ourselves with the tools which will enable us to stay safe, as we allow greater flexibility to live, work and even celebrate major life events,” he said.
The minister was responding to a question from Tampines GRC Member of Parliament Cheng Li Hui, who had asked about the criteria considered when considering the maximum number of people allowed for events such as weddings.
Such factors include the frequency of such activities, the potential risk of specific types of events as well as whether additional safety measures can be effectively put in place to mitigate these risks, said Mr Gan.
Analysis shows the probability of transmission of the coronavirus tends to be high in social settings, he noted.
“In Singapore, we saw large clusters forming due to the SAFRA Jurong dinner and the Mei Hwan Drive condominium family get-together which took place over Chinese New Year. We tend to lower our guard when we are among family and friends,” he said.
The risk of having meals together is also higher due to the need to remove masks when eating and drinking, adding that this is multiplied many times should this involve different groups of people, he said.
“Hence, we have taken a cautious approach in expanding group sizes,” he said, explaining the rationale in considering allowing eight people in such gatherings, up from five currently.
“Taking banquet tables as an example, many used to sit around 10 people before COVID-19. So eight persons is about the maximum that these tables can take while allowing some additional distancing compared to the past,” said Mr Gan.
READ: Nightlife industry a 'higher risk' setting, activities unlikely to resume even at start of Phase 3: Lawrence Wong
Even though gatherings of any size pose a risk of spreading COVID-19, disallowing social gatherings for prolonged periods is neither tenable nor desirable, said the minister, adding that a balance needs to be struck.
“Therefore, allowing gatherings of up to eight in Phase 3 strikes a careful balance between maintaining safe distancing and allowing larger groups to come together,” he said.
Higher capacity limits can be allowed in settings where safe management measures can be effectively imposed to mitigate risks, and where interactions between different groups can be managed, he added.
Pre-event COVID-19 testing is a “key enabler” that could allow more activities to resume at potentially higher capacity limits, Mr Gan said.
"We are piloting the use of pre-event testing to allow higher-risk activities including weddings to scale up safely, by reducing the probability of a COVID-19 case being present at the event, thereby reducing the risk of transmission."
Alternative test kits such as antigen rapid tests, which can return fairly accurate results within half an hour, are being used for a shorter turnaround time for testing prior to events, he noted.
However, these are not as accurate as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, said Mr Gan, adding the PCR test remains the “definitive test” for the confirmation of COVID-19 cases.
“As such, while pre-event testing helps to reduce the probability that a COVID-positive case is present at the event, it cannot eliminate it completely, and safe management measures will still have to be observed at the event,” he said.
Mr Gan also pointed to strengthened contact tracing capability through the progressive rolling out of TraceTogether-only SafeEntry as another “key enabler”.
READ: COVID-19: Singapore to pilot pre-event rapid testing from mid-October so more events can safely resume
“This is to speed up contact tracing efforts should someone you had been in close contact with at the event become a COVID-19 case, and to allow us to provide you with medical care early if you become infected,” he said.
The Government will continue to work with businesses to ensure compliance with safe management measures. Safe distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers will continue to advise members of the public on safe distancing measures, and take enforcement actions where necessary, he said.
“We must set the right spirit across society, and make sure all of us remain committed to maintaining the discipline that will keep all of us safe, even if we progress to Phase 3. In fact, even more so if we progress to Phase 3,” he said.
The objective in Phase 3 is to reach a “steady state of permitted economic and social activities” until an effective vaccine or treatment is widely available, said Mr Gan.
“If we can put in place more enablers and risk-mitigating measures that allow for further reopening and scaling up of activities, we will,” he said, adding that targeted measures will be taken should conditions worsen.
“We must not let our guard down and become lax in adherence to safe management measures, as doing so could result in a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, putting all our sacrifices thus far to waste,” said Mr Gan.
While Singapore is in a much better position now to manage any possible spikes in cases than it was earlier this year, the country must not be complacent, he said.
“Should there be a spike in cases, we need to respond swiftly and decisively. We cannot rule out the need to re-impose measures or introduce new measures in order to keep the virus under control,” he said.