SINGAPORE: Singapore will take between three and six months to get to a “new normal”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Oct 9) in his address to the nation on the country’s COVID-19 situation.
This is when Singapore can ease off restrictions and have “light” safe management measures, with cases stable at "perhaps hundreds a day, but not growing", said Mr Lee.
Under the new normal, hospitals will also go back to “business as usual”, and people can resume pre-pandemic activities and see crowds again “without getting worried or feeling strange”.
“A few countries have reached this state, for example in Europe. But they have paid for it dearly, losing many lives along the way.
“It will take us at least three months, and perhaps as long as six months to get to this new normal,” he said.
Acknowledging that the next few months will be “trying”, the prime minister said that the surge will “hopefully” level off and decline within a month or so.
“As pressure eases off on the healthcare system, we can relax our restrictions. But we will have to do so cautiously, to avoid starting a new wave again.
“We must protect our healthcare system and workers at all costs, in order to get through the pandemic safely.”
“LIVING WITH COVID-19” STRATEGY
The emergence of the “highly infectious” Delta variant has put Singapore in a “changed situation”, said Mr Lee.
“Even with our whole population vaccinated, we still will not be able to stamp it out through lockdowns and SMMs (safe management measures). Almost every country has accepted this reality,” he said.
Even with stringent safe management measures keeping COVID-19 cases down, the virus will spread “swiftly” again once the Government loosens the measures, he added.
“This is especially true in Singapore, precisely because of our ‘Zero COVID’ strategy,” he said.
The "Zero COVID" strategy means that most of the population have never been infected with COVID-19, making Singapore's natural population immunity low, said Mr Lee.
In addition, vaccinated people are at “some risk” of getting infected.
While the country has to be prepared to see many COVID-19 cases “for some time to come”, Singapore cannot be locked down and closed off indefinitely, he said.
“It would not work, and it would be very costly. We would be unable to resume our lives, participate in social activities, open our borders and revive our economy ... All these cause psychological and emotional strain, and mental fatigue.”
SINGAPORE’S ORIGINAL APPROACH
Discussing Singapore’s “Zero COVID” strategy, the prime minister said that the Government’s original approach was to prevent Singaporeans from being exposed to COVID-19 as much as possible.
This was because of the unknown nature of the virus. He added that Singapore’s experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) helped with crafting a strategy for COVID-19.
“‘Zero COVID’ was the right strategy at that time,” he said. “Our population was not yet vaccinated. People had little or no immunity against COVID-19. The consequences of catching the virus were serious.”
As the virus was “not so infectious” then, Singapore’s measures could break the chain of transmission.
This helped the country avoid a “huge loss of lives”, leaving Singapore with “one of the lowest” COVID-19 death rates in the world, he said.
However, Singapore also planned ahead and secured vaccine supplies, which Mr Lee describes as a “game changer”.
“Our national programme to vaccinate everybody has been very successful,” he said, adding that Singapore has “one of the highest” vaccination rates in the world at nearly 85 per cent.
He noted that vaccination “sharply reduces” the risk of serious illness from the disease, with more than 98 per cent of local cases having mild or no symptoms.
“In other words, with vaccination, COVID-19 is no longer a dangerous disease for most of us.”
MAY SEE FUTURE SURGES
While the war against COVID-19 continues, Singapore is in a “much better position now”, said Mr Lee.
“Sometimes it may not feel like it, but we are making steady progress towards the new normal,” he said.
However, he noted that there may be future surges, especially if new variants emerge.
“We may have to tap on the brakes if cases again grow too fast, to protect our healthcare system and healthcare workers. But we will be better able to cope with future surges,” he said.
He called on Singaporeans to protect hospitals and healthcare workers and be the “first line of defence”, telling them to comply with safe management measures and cut back on social activities.
He also urged people to get vaccinated and go for their booster shots, self-test regularly and for the infected to recover at home unless they have serious illness or vulnerable family members.
“Please don’t rush to the A&E with mild symptoms. Let us reserve hospital capacity for those who need it most - serious COVID-19 cases as well as others with serious illnesses,” he said.
“With everyone’s cooperation, we will put the pandemic behind us, hopefully soon. We have the resources, the determination and the courage to get through this crisis … Let's keep that up and continue working together to complete the journey towards COVID-resilience.”