'Practically all' social, workplace COVID-19 restrictions could be lifted in 'truly endemic state': Gan Kim Yong
SINGAPORE: Co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force Gan Kim Yong on Monday (Jul 26) sketched out a roadmap for businesses to return to normal, offering the possibility of nearly all social and workplace restrictions being lifted.
“As our vaccination coverage increases, we will be in a much stronger position to ease our COVID-19 measures safely and confidently,” he said in a fifth update on the whole-of-government response to COVID-19.
As such, the Government will begin to adjust its safe management measures in stages, subject to trends in serious cases. This could mean fewer restrictions on social gatherings, larger dine-in groups and lower requirements and higher capacity for events.
Vaccinated individuals will be able to engage in a wider range of social activities and in larger groups, while unvaccinated individuals may only do so with negative pre-event testing results.
Singapore announced tighter restrictions last week, with dining-in suspended and group sizes for social gatherings reduced from five to two. This was in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the community.
“TRULY ENDEMIC STATE”
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Gan outlined the conditions for what he saw as a new normal.
The Government will continue to push for higher vaccination coverage, he said.
“If the incidence of severe illness from COVID-19 remains low despite clusters emerging from time to time, we will eventually be able to arrive at a truly endemic state.
“Practically all social and workplace restrictions can be lifted, although some critical measures, such as mask-wearing and precautions for large events may remain.”
Watch: COVID-19 task force chairs deliver ministerial statements on Government's response to pandemic
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With relaxed safe management measures, food and beverage, retail and other businesses that provide in-person services will see a return in demand, said Mr Gan, who is also Minister for Trade and Industry.
Progressively larger capacity limits will also provide relief to the tourism, cruises and meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) sectors, although foreign tourists will take some time to return.
Under such conditions, workplace restrictions will also ease. More workers will be able to go back to the office and businesses can conduct important face-to-face meetings and hold workplace events important for networking or team-bonding, he added.
READ: COVID-19 restrictions to be reviewed in early August, any easing only for vaccinated people: Lawrence Wong
PREPARING FOR REOPENING
Acknowledging that the last one and a half years have been a “very difficult ride” for business, especially the F&B, retail, sports and gym, and performance arts sectors, Mr Gan said that the impact on them must have been “very severe”.
There are several things businesses can do to prepare for reopening, he said.
They should “encourage and facilitate” all medically eligible employees, especially those involved in “high-touch point” activities, to be vaccinated. Those who cannot be vaccinated should be deployed to lower-risk settings.
READ: More COVID-19 cases who are vaccinated may not need to be hospitalised as Singapore adjusts healthcare protocols
They should also integrate antigen rapid test (ART) self-tests into their work processes, especially for businesses providing high-touch point services or have workers that change frequently.
Employers should encourage workers to self-isolate and get tested if they are not feeling well or suspect that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. “Doing so can help detect cases early and limit the extent of disruption to your businesses,” he said.
In addition, businesses should continue flexible work arrangements and introduce business continuity plans to “strengthen operational resilience”.
Singapore will progressively facilitate international travel with countries that have managed COVID-19 well as its vaccination coverage increases, the minister said, adding that fully vaccinated people could also travel and do business “more freely”.
“This is a critical move that will allow us to reassert Singapore’s position as a business, travel and talent hub,” he said.
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As a “small and open economy”, Singapore cannot close itself off to the world. “Many parts of our economy require a steady flow of people in and out of Singapore - be it workers or visitors,” he added.
As a business hub, many of Singapore’s executives have to travel, while the tourism and MICE industry, and Singapore’s air hub status, “critically” depends on international connectivity.
Many in the international community have also not been able to visit their families since the start of the pandemic, he said.
FEWER SHUTDOWNS, LESS CONTACT TRACING
Infected cases will create “much less disruption” domestically than they do now, meaning that businesses can largely return to normal operations, he added.
In an endemic state, businesses will not have to shut down premises for deep cleaning and the Government would no longer need to commit “huge resources” towards contact tracing.
Those with mild symptoms may be able to recover at home and close contacts will only have to monitor their health without the need for quarantine or self-isolation, similar to how influenza cases are treated today, he said.
“Globally, Singapore will likely be one of the highest vaccinated countries in the world. We will be able to regain strong air and maritime connectivity to a large number of countries, while ensuring that our healthcare system is well-functioning and not overstretched by COVID-19 cases,” said the minister.
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He added that businesses have continued to “show confidence” in Singapore’s “strong fundamentals” during the pandemic, with investors committing S$17.2 billion in investment in 2020. This is the highest in 12 years.
Singapore has also attracted “significant” investments from “major biomedical and electronics companies” including Sanofi, BioNTech and GlobalFoundries.
Mr Gan capped off his speech by thanking Singaporeans, businesses and workers for their cooperation over the course of the pandemic.
“It has been tremendously difficult for many of you, and we are deeply appreciative of the commitment and grit that you have shown.
“We are so close to reaching the end of the tunnel. We will soon achieve a high vaccination coverage, which will allow us to move decisively to a COVID-resilient state. I want to appeal to everyone to not lose heart and work together to press on in our journey.”