SINGAPORE: Singapore faces a “real risk” of a resurgence in the number of COVID-19 cases or clusters if it resumes too many activities too quickly, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament on Thursday (Jun 4).
Should that happen, Singapore will have to reimpose strict measures and slow down the pace of opening, he cautioned.
Mr Gan was responding to Members of Parliament (MPs) Chong Kee Hiong and Lim Biow Chuan, who had asked if the ministry would consider reopening stadiums, swimming pools, food and beverage outlets and retail malls.
Citing “low COVID-19 infection rates within our community presently”, Mr Chong had also asked if the Government would consider allowing all employees whose workplaces meet safe distancing criteria to return to work.
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As restrictions are eased and more activities are resumed, it becomes even "more critical" that people exercise strong social responsibility to ensure that community transmission remains low, said Mr Gan.
Singapore will continue to adopt a more cautious approach for higher-risk activities, such as those involving large numbers of people in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods of time, he said.
These include religious services, cultural venues such as arts performances, cinemas, museums and libraries. Nightclubs, bars, karaoke outlets and other public entertainment establishments have similar risk factors, added Mr Gan.
RELAXING F&B RESTRICTIONS
Mr Lim, in a supplementary question, raised a concern that some eateries may not be able to reopen when they are eventually allowed to so, as they could be insolvent by then.
"I am not asking for nightclubs and bars to be open, because that is where the crowd is, but for some of the F&B outlets to be able to seat a few of the diners," he said.
Mr Gan said that the issue has been discussed "at length" by the multi-ministry task force, of which he is co-chair.
He acknowledged that while many F&B outlets have been allowed to offer takeaway services and sustain a "basic level" of activity, it is "not enough" and that these eateries want their customers back. It may also not be economical for some eateries to provide delivery services, he added.
However, the resumption of dine-in services has larger considerations.
"When you allow that, that means you must allow gathering and if we allow gathering in the F&B (setting), then we must also allow gathering outside because then it doesn't make sense to only allow the F&B gathering," he said.
"Therefore it will actually lead to a general opening of the society, of the community and allow social gathering of certain number of people and therefore this will actually be a consideration for Phase 2."
Singapore exited its circuit breaker period on Jun 1, and the COVID-19 measures will be progressively lifted in three phases.
Mr Gan said on Thursday that Phase 1 is a safe opening period and therefore "very restrictive".
"We are not prepared to open it up too early, too quickly because that in fact may result in more cases emerging and in turn will require us to reimpose some of the measures, and as a result, actually may defer and slow down Phase 2," he said.
In his speech, Mr Gan acknowledged that the circuit breaker was a “challenging two months”, despite measures introduced to help Singaporeans cope with the period.
“Overall, the circuit breaker was painful but necessary to slow the transmission in the community,” he said.
“We understand the anxiety that our people are facing, and are acutely aware of the economic and social impact of prolonged closure of various sectors. All of us want to get back to normal as soon as possible, and to be able to see our friends and families whom we have not seen for some time."
MP Murali Pillai asked about the merits of exiting the circuit breaker on Jun 1 when COVID-19 infections among migrant workers were still in the hundreds.
While the number of cases in the dormitories remained high, that was “partly due to proactive screening as part of our plan to clear the dormitories and prepare the workers to return to work”, said Mr Gan.
“The situation in the dormitories had come under control. The time had come to begin our journey to resume activities, gradually and cautiously,” he said.
He cautioned, however, that Singaporeans should be mindful that there are still infections in the dormitories and undetected cases in the community, as evidenced from the occasional unlinked cases.
“The global situation has also not fully stabilised. Some countries are seeing a second wave of infection after reopening their economy and allowing social activities,” he said, adding that Singapore must remain vigilant.
LEARNING FROM OTHER COUNTRIES
Mr Gan also said that the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force has been monitoring the global situation and learning from the experiences of other jurisdictions, including their strategies for reopening the economy and community.
He was responding to MPs Christopher de Souza and Mr Chong, who had asked what Singapore can learn from other countries.
“While the situation differs for different jurisdictions, most have taken a cautious and risk-based approach in lifting restrictions, given the possibility of a resurgence in cases that can potentially overwhelm the healthcare system,” he said.
While workplaces have reopened, many authorities have retained measures to limit social interactions and restrict mixing of households in the early stages of opening, as these are known sources of transmission, he added.
He gave the example of Hong Kong, where the limit of eight persons for social gatherings was extended by two weeks because of a new cluster.
Mr Gan noted that New Zealand moved from its highest alert level to a lower alert level on Apr 28, and another level down about two weeks later.
“In making these moves, the authorities took into account factors such as the number of daily cases to ensure the situation is under control, healthcare capacity to ensure the system can cope with potential rise in new cases once the restrictions are relaxed, and adequacy of safety measures to prevent transmission,” he said.
Many countries have also continued with basic preventive measures to reduce the risk of transmission in public places and workplaces and Singapore must do the same, he said.
Like Taiwan, Singapore has made the wearing of masks mandatory on public transport, he said.
Like New Zealand, Singapore has also allowed businesses to operate, subject to the implementation of safe distancing and other precautionary measures, Mr Gan said.
Digital solutions have been used in many countries such as Australia, China, Israel and South Korea to support the gradual resumption of activities by enabling faster contact tracing and identification of clusters, Mr Gan noted.
Singapore has similarly introduced TraceTogether and SafeEntry, he said.
“The most important lesson we have learnt from other countries is that we cannot be complacent, as there is always the risk of a second wave of the virus,” he said.
Despite the steady decline in community cases, from 31 cases per day at the start of circuit breaker to four cases per day in the past week, Singaporeans should be mindful that this is probably the effect of the circuit breaker, he said.
“We expect to see a rise in new community cases as the activity levels and person-to-person interactions increase after circuit breaker,” he added.