Easing of Singapore's COVID-19 measures timely, healthcare system can 'cope well', experts say
SINGAPORE: People in Singapore may be seen without a mask outdoors from next Tuesday (Mar 29), a departure from a sight that has marked the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Singapore prepares to ease COVID-19 restrictions on group sizes, household visitors, travel and workplace measures, health experts told CNA the move is timely given that the peak of the Omicron wave is over.
Previously there was uncertainty over how big the wave would be, as well as concerns over the number of hospitalisations and their effect on the overall healthcare system.
“Now that the number of cases in general wards is about half the level it was at the peak, we have much more confidence about being able to handle any relaxation of measures, which is why I think it’s the right time,” said Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice dean of research at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
Professor Josip Car from Nanyang Technological University pointed to Singapore's high vaccination and booster rates.
Given that a "significant proportion" of the population has developed some immunity post-infection in the past months, this is an appropriate time to ease restrictions, added Prof Car, founding director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.
“We can expect no negative surprises and that the health system will be able to cope well with infection cases,” he said.
IMPACT ON HEALTHCARE SYSTEM
The easing of restrictions is “unlikely” to overburden the healthcare system in the near term, said Associate Professor Natasha Howard from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
“We have weathered the peak of the Omicron wave, all being well, which strained but didn’t overwhelm our health infrastructure and staff,” she said.
“Therefore, we can be relatively confident that this transition to reduced restrictions will also be managed effectively by our healthcare workers.”
Nevertheless, it is likely that case numbers plateau or even increase for a while after restrictions are eased, she said.
"However, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the high daily numbers we’ve seen recently unless a new highly transmissible or high-breakthrough variant emerges," she added.
Her colleague Assoc Prof Cook noted that the gradient of the fall in case numbers of cases will not be as steep as it otherwise would be.
He noted that the healthcare system is “unlikely to be affected as much as it was a month ago”.
Not having to admit toddlers for observation will also ease the burden on hospitals that care for children, said Professor Dale Fisher, senior consultant at the National University Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
He was referring to a change in the protocol for managing COVID-19 patients aged 12 months to two years old, who will be able to recover at home or be managed by their primary care doctors or paediatricians.
The relaxation of measures is “logical” and a “very important and appropriate” next step, said Prof Fisher, who is also Professor of Medicine at NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.
“Humans are social. We need to interact with family, friends and colleagues, so larger gatherings and travel are important,” he said.
Economically, opening Singapore's borders will likely have the biggest impact since travel is now made "much less risky for businesses and families", said Assoc Prof Cook.
“Beyond that, the partial removal of restrictions will start to heal the social fracture of the last two years,” he added.
From Apr 1, fully vaccinated travellers will be able to enter Singapore quarantine-free, without the need to take designated transport via vaccinated travel lanes.
Fully vaccinated travellers will be able to cross the land borders between Singapore and Malaysia in their own vehicles without the need for quarantine or COVID-19 tests.
By the end of the current infection wave, Singapore can think about relaxing other measures such as workplace capacity and mask-wearing indoors, said Assoc Prof Cook.
He gave the example of the rule limiting workplace capacity to a maximum of 75 per cent of employees who can work from home.
In terms of infection risk, allowing all workers on-site “will not differ substantially” but requires the continuation of processes such as split team and density monitoring to ensure compliance, Assoc Prof Cook said.
“If over the month ahead cases continue to fall to low levels, we should seriously consider dropping remaining restrictions and relying on social responsibility to guide our behaviour,” he added.
He urged people to wear a mask if they have symptoms, even if it is not mandatory to outdoors.
“If you feel unwell and are able to work at home, your employer should allow you to do so,” he added.
Assoc Prof Cook said, however, that it is “unfortunate” that the Government is withdrawing the rostered routine testing requirement and subsidies.
“That’s a good way for employees and employers to make informed decisions about how to prevent workplace spread,” he said, adding that he would encourage employers to continue providing antigen rapid test kits for their employees.
Singapore can move towards personal responsibility as opposed to government mandates, said Prof Fisher.
He urged COVID-19 patients not to spread the disease and to respect the need for vulnerable people to be “extra vigilant” with safe distancing.
“People should move with the spirit of the easing of restrictions. Enjoy ourselves a little more but don’t forget that our lives are better if we avoid COVID-19,” he said.