SINGAPORE: The Government does not expect Singapore to move out of the third phase of its post-circuit breaker COVID-19 reopening "anytime soon", said Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary on Thursday (Feb 25).
"Phase 3 is a new normal which will last until such time when there is evidence on vaccine effectiveness in preventing future outbreaks, a substantial proportion of the population is vaccinated, and the rest of the world also has the virus under control," said Dr Puthucheary in Parliament, in response to a question from Member of Parliament (MP) Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang).
Since Singapore entered Phase 3 on Dec 28 last year, there has been an increase in COVID-19 outbreaks in many countries as well as the emergence of more easily transmitted variants of the virus, he said.
He pointed out Singapore had faced an increase in the number of unlinked and community cases several weeks ago, and as such had tightened community safe management measures and recalibrated the pace and scale at which activities were able to resume, even within Phase 3.
Singapore needs to remain vigilant even as COVID-19 outbreaks in other countries have abated in recent weeks, Dr Puthucheary added.
"We will continue to find ways to allow our economy and society to further reopen in a safe way. But given the dynamic situation here and around the world, we will need to adjust our safe management measures from time to time," he said.
"We do not expect to move out of Phase 3 anytime soon."
Mr Yip asked if vaccination rates had to cross a certain threshold before the Government would consider exiting Phase 3.
Dr Puthucheary said that while vaccines approved for use here has shown to be effective in providing protection against COVID-19, the authorities are still waiting for more data on how effective they are in preventing transmission. He added that the effectiveness of the vaccines against new variants of the coronavirus are also being closely monitored.
"Meanwhile, our best strategy is to continue to be disciplined about safe management measures, and achieve a high level of vaccination within our population to boost our collective immunity," he said, adding that Singapore has made "good progress" on its vaccination programme.
"We are continuing to bring in more vaccine supplies, and we encourage all eligible Singaporeans to take up the vaccines to protect themselves and others around them," he said.
In November last year, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong had said that people should be prepared for Phase 3 of Singapore's reopening to last for a "prolonged period" of one year or more.
IMPACT OF SINOVAC VACCINE
Mr Yip also asked if Singapore's vaccination timeline would change should the Sinovac vaccine - which arrived in the country on Tuesday - be approved, noting it had earlier been reported that Singapore would have enough vaccines for its entire population by the third quarter of this year.
Dr Puthucheary replied that the timeline was dependent on a number of factors, such as the ability to increase the capacity and capability of vaccination centres, as well as the willingness of people to get vaccinated.
"The approval or licensure of one given vaccine is not a great limiting step in that process. We will look at the vaccine licensure as an issue of safety and efficacy of a given vaccine," he said.
MP Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) asked if the Health Ministry had backup processes should there be an outbreak of more virulent strains of COVID-19 that current safe management measures may not be sufficient to contain.
Fundamental measures such as safe distancing and contact tracing are a "necessary and important" part of the fight against COVID-19, replied Dr Puthucheary, adding that how such measures are applied is dependent on the risk posed to Singapore's population.
The specifics of any particular variant would be in a "hypothetical space", he said.
"The key point would be that we take reference from technical and professional advice, and we are very grateful that we have a depth of technical and professional advice to advise us in fighting COVID-19," he said.