COVID-19: Singapore widens travel restrictions as minister warns of need to prepare for spikes in cases
SINGAPORE: Singapore will block entry and transit for new visitors who travelled to Iran, northern Italy or South Korea within the last 14 days, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Mar 3), as he warned of the need to be prepared for "new spikes" in COVID-19 cases in Singapore.
The measure, which takes effect on Wednesday, is among the additional precautions Singapore is taking to help reduce the risk of imported cases in Singapore.
"We have been monitoring the virus situation very closely and as all of you know, it is spreading very quickly to countries everywhere. And Singapore, as a small, open city connected to the world, we face a higher risk of imported cases," Mr Wong told reporters at the National Press Centre.
"That's why the taskforce has decided to take additional precautions for travel in and out of Singapore," added Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry taskforce for COVID-19.
However, the minister pointed out that "despite our very best efforts", "we have to be mentally prepared for the number of infected cases in Singapore to go up".
"We have been used to ... the number of cases rising by just a handful every day. But this may not be the norm and it can change very easily. You see this in other countries too, where you have very few cases for a few days and then suddenly, one incident occurs and there is a sharp spike in cases and sustained transmission. This has happened elsewhere; it can happen in Singapore too," he said.
In a press release issued on Wednesday, the Ministry of Health also warned that the "virus is spreading quickly around the world and there are likely to be many undetected cases in countries that are not undertaking proactive testing".
"We will be exposed to new waves of infection and increasingly it will not be possible to stop the virus at our borders. We also cannot isolate Singapore and shut ourselves from the world. So despite our best efforts, we have to be prepared for new spikes in COVID-19 cases in Singapore, as has happened elsewhere," the ministry added.
With immediate effect, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will suspend the issuance of all forms of new visas to those with Iranian passports.
Previously issued short-term and multiple-visit visas for such travellers will also be suspended. They will not be allowed to enter Singapore during this period.
Travellers from Italy and South Korea do not require visas to visit Singapore.
The following groups of people will also be issued with Stay-Home Notices (SHN) starting from Wednesday:
- Singapore citizens and permanent residents with recent travel history to Iran, northern Italy or South Korea within the last 14 days
- Long-term pass holders (including work passes, student's pass, dependant's pass and long-term visit pass) with recent travel history to Iran, northern Italy or South Korea within the last 14 days
Under the SHN, such travellers will have to stay at home at all times for a two-week period after returning to Singapore.
From 11.59pm on Wednesday, all work pass holders and their dependents with travel history to South Korea, northern Italy or Iran within the last 14 days will have to obtain the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) approval before they begin their journey to Singapore.
Upon arrival, all those affected will be issued SHNs, MOM said in a separate press release.
"Employers and work pass holders have a joint duty to ensure that the SHN is complied with. Work pass holders who have been put on a SHN shall not leave their place of residence," MOM said.
Mr Wong said border controls are still useful at this stage of the epidemic because Singapore can still identify where the sources of risk are.
"This is useful, but we have to be prepared that at some stage, the border controls alone will not be sufficient and we cannot stop the virus at our borders, because the virus will spread to countries everywhere around us," he said.
EXPANDED DEFINITION OF SUSPECTED CASES
In a press release on Tuesday, the Ministry of Health also announced its expansion of the definition of suspect cases to include those with pneumonia or severe respiratory infection with breathlessness who have been to Iran, northern Italy, Japan and South Korea within 14 days before the onset of symptoms.
Cases meeting this definition will be referred to hospitals for further assessment.
Mr Wong explained that the authorities have not included Japan in the incoming restrictions because the number of infected cases in Japan at this stage is still lower compared to the other countries.
"We are managing the risk by having an advisory on outgoing trips at this juncture," he said.
Singaporeans have been advised to defer non-essential travel to Japan, in addition to South Korea, northern Italy and Iran.
NEW SCREENING MECHANISM AT CHECKPOINTS
Also starting on Wednesday, travellers entering Singapore who exhibit fever and other symptoms of respiratory illness but do not meet the clinical suspect case definition may be required to undergo a COVID-19 swab test at the checkpoint.
"We know that temperature standards alone are not sufficient," Mr Wong said.
They may continue their journey immediately after undergoing the test, but while awaiting results - which may take between three and six hours - they are advised to minimise contact with others, said MOH.
They will be contacted when the results are released and those with positive results will be taken to the hospital in a dedicated ambulance.
Those who do meet the suspect case definition will be taken straight to hospital.
Short-term visitors who are identified for testing but refuse to do so will not be allowed entry into Singapore, said MOH. Singapore permanent residents and long-term pass holders who refuse testing may have their immigration facilities and work pass privileges revoked or validity shortened.
All travellers, including Singaporeans, who do not comply with testing or cannot be contacted subsequently may face penalties and can be prosecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act, said the ministry.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
"The COVID-19 swab test kit deployed at checkpoints allows us to test beyond persons who are referred to hospitals, and extend testing to lower-risk asymptomatic travellers as an added precautionary measure.
"This additional testing capability deployed upfront at checkpoints further increases our likelihood of detecting imported cases at the point of entry," said MOH.
"As with any test, a negative result does not completely rule out the possibility of infection. As such, symptomatic travellers with a negative test results should continue to minimise social contact and seek medical attention should symptoms not improve over the next three days," MOH added.