SINGAPORE: The authorities are considering introducing new restrictions and safeguards against COVID-19 ahead of the Chinese New Year period, where more intermingling is expected, said co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, Education Minister Lawrence Wong.
This comes as the number of community cases has been “creeping up”, while clusters have been reported for the first time “in quite a long while”, which Mr Wong said could have been due to the higher number of interactions amid the end-of-year festivities.
Mr Wong was speaking to the media on Tuesday (Jan 19) with his task force co-chair, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, to mark one year since Singapore saw its first case of the virus on Jan 23 last year.
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Responding to a question on possible rules for New Year visits, Mr Wong said: “There will be potentially a lot more intermingling, a lot more interaction, as has happened over the end of the year during the festive period too.
“Therefore, we are considering now whether or not there might be additional restrictions and safeguards that might be necessary to keep infections under control. Exactly what they are, whether they pertain to house visitations, what kinds of measures – we are still studying, and when we are ready, we will highlight them,” said Mr Wong, without providing further details.
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Citing the rise in community cases which occurred one to two weeks after the year-end celebrations, he said authorities were concerned that if “we don’t do something more”, the gradual rise in cases could create new clusters that are beyond control later.
He also emphasised that the measures against the virus are “never static”, with the possibility of being changed even during Phase 3 itself.
“We can tighten and we can relax (them), but it has to be based on the environment and situation. We are continuously monitoring it and making adjustments as and when necessary,” Mr Wong said.
SINGAPORE IN A STRONGER POSITION, BUT STILL VULNERABLE
Reflecting on the past year, both Mr Wong and Mr Gan thanked the population for their efforts and co-operation in the fight against COVID-19, saying it helped manage a crisis and keep community cases low.
They also highlighted that one year on, Singapore is in a much better position to handle the pandemic, but there is no room to be complacent.
Mr Gan said: “We have been able to ramp up our medical facilities, testing capabilities, strengthen our contact tracing abilities, and now we are beginning to roll out our vaccination plans. So I think we are well on our way towards recovery, but the road is still a very long one.”
Mr Wong added that the situation remains highly unpredictable, as the pandemic rages on across the rest of world, while new and more infectious strains have emerged.
“Despite all the precautions we can put, all the measures we can put, nothing will ever be watertight … So long as there is weakness in any line of defence, somebody doesn’t take sufficient precaution, feels ill but doesn’t see the doctor, you can easily end up with super spreader event and have clusters emerging.
“Then we have to run around chasing the virus all over again, like what happened at the beginning of last year,” he said.
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Mr Wong also added that one potential vulnerability Singapore faces is a sense of complacency among the population.
“If we start to let our guards down, not just in terms of frontline work, but social response and behaviours, and in terms of how people comply to measures – not just the letter of the law but the spirit of the requirements … then it will be very easy for new clusters to emerge,” he said.
Laying out the priorities for 2021, the ministers said a key focus would be accelerating the vaccination programme so that the population may be vaccinated as soon as possible.
The second priority, Mr Wong said, is to “stay vigilant, continuously update and review our measures”.
READ: Vaccinating population against COVID-19 requires ‘considerable resources’, to be key focus in 2021: Gan Kim Yong
“Yes, we can see the end in sight because we have a vaccination in place, we have a plan to get everyone vaccinated by the third quarter of this year. But between now and (then), there are many months and many things can happen during this period, so let’s stay alert,” he said.
GOVERNMENT “NOT HOLDING BACK SUPPLY” FOR THOSE UNDECIDED ABOUT VACCINES
Responding to a comment about how many still have reservations about getting vaccinated, Mr Gan said these concerns are understandable because the vaccine is new.
Nevertheless, he assured: “The shorter-term effects, we know what they are and we have put in place mitigating measures, precautionary measures – like we will observe them for 30 minutes after …. and we will continue to monitor vaccine safety.”
But he also acknowledged there “is a lot of work for (them) to do” in convincing those who may be taking a wait-and-see approach or those who do not wish to be vaccinated.
His co-chair Mr Wong also added that the Government’s approach to rolling out the vaccine is to push out whatever supply there is as soon as possible.
“We are not holding back the supply, in order to wait for the people who are holding back and say: ‘Since you want to hold back, I will reserve some supplies for you until you have decided.’
“If you want to wait, you must accept the consequence that perhaps later if the vaccine supply has been taken up, and you want to take it up later on, you may not have the ready supply,” he cautioned.
POTENTIAL BENEFITS FOR THOSE WHO GET VACCINATED
When asked about what life will be like after people get vaccinated, Mr Wong fleshed out possible incentives for individuals and society, though he caveated that studies are still being done on the extent to which vaccination helps reduce transmission of the virus to another person.
“So pending that information, we are unable to commit to any tangible concrete benefits for vaccination at this stage,” he said.
“But if the data and evidence shows transmission risks are reduced significantly, I think you can expect that someone who wants to travel and has been vaccinated – then potentially the time for the Stay Home Notice requirement can be reduced or even eliminated, depending on the evidence and data,” he reiterated.
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Vaccinated workers who are subject to regular testing may also be subject to less frequent testing, or have testing done away with completely, Mr Wong said.
If many people in Singapore were to be vaccinated, the minister added there would also certainly be room to relax some existing safe management measures.
“But again the extent of the relaxation, how far we can go, depends on the many questions we are asking about the effectiveness and the protective nature of the vaccine, which is something we are still studying very carefully,” he said, describing this as motivation for people to step forward for vaccinations.
Though there is “an end in sight”, Mr Wong is not expecting “major changes” in the current way of life for the next one or one and a half years.
“Even if the majority of people in Singapore are to be vaccinated, it’s impossible for the rest of the world to be vaccinated (in this period),” he said.
“Over a four-year time frame … surely no pandemic is forever. Either the world gets vaccinated and achieves herd immunity, or the virus attenuates,” he added.
But it would be even harder to predict what the world and its norms will look like beyond that time frame, he said.
For one, Mr Gan said he hopes personal hygiene habits developed during the pandemic will remain even once COVID-19 passes. This comes in preparation for the next pandemic, which Mr Gan says he is “quite sure” is only four to five years in the future.
“So before we celebrate that finally COVID is over, we have to always be vigilant that next pandemic is short distance away.”