SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation on Thursday (Mar 24), giving an update on Singapore's new phase and a "decisive move towards living with COVID-19".
This is the Prime Minister's full address -
My fellow Singaporeans,
Our fight against COVID-19 has reached a major turning point. We will be making a decisive move towards living with COVID-19. The multi-ministry taskforce (MTF) will announce the changes after this broadcast. But let me set the context, take stock of our journey thus far and explain our plans moving forward.
We have battled COVID-19 for more than two years now. Right from the start, we had one overriding aim: To protect lives, and prevent as many avoidable deaths as possible.
We saw in other countries bleak images of people desperately seeking admission into hospitals, and healthcare workers being forced to choose who lived and who died.
We were determined to prevent that happening here, and fortunately we have managed to do so. Our healthcare system came under strain, but it was not overwhelmed.
We ensured enough ICU beds and oxygen for everyone who needed them. We recorded one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 related deaths in the world.
This has been a tough fight. With each new wave, we had to move quickly and adapt. Every time we thought we had the pandemic under control, the virus surprised us.
In the early stages, when little was known about the virus, we adopted stringent measures. Our measures kept community cases very low, and helped us to control and clear a major outbreak in our migrant worker dormitories.
We bought time to ramp up our healthcare capacity and roll out a comprehensive national vaccination programme.
Then the more dangerous Delta variant struck. Thankfully, by then our vaccination programme was in full swing.
But we kept strict measures in place to slow the spread of the virus, until we had vaccinated nearly everyone eligible, especially the elderly. Meanwhile, we changed our health protocols to allow mild cases to recover safely at home, relieving the load on our healthcare system.
When we eased up on safe management measures (SMMs), we had a large wave of COVID-19 cases. But by then most Singaporeans had been vaccinated, and were well protected from the Delta variant.
Still, many patients had to be hospitalised, and some unfortunately succumbed to the virus.
Not too long after the Delta wave subsided, the virus threw us another curveball – this time the even more infectious Omicron variant.
We braced ourselves as countries across the world saw record-high cases. Our numbers went up sharply too, at the peak exceeding 25,000 in a single day. With our high vaccination rate and strong healthcare system, we were quietly confident we could cope.
Still, we tightened our border measures and held back easing our SMMs, to give our healthcare system and workers time to respond. We were relieved that Omicron turned out less severe than earlier variants, and that relatively few cases were serious enough to need oxygen support or ICU care.
Over the last two weeks, daily new cases have been coming down. Week on week, the ratio is now around 0.8. At this rate, the number of daily infections will halve in about three weeks.
A COLLECTIVE ACHIEVEMENT
We only achieved this through everyone’s collective effort. You understood the mission and did your part - trusted the government, accepted sound medical advice, abided by safe management measures patiently and responsibly, got yourself and your loved ones vaccinated, organised yourselves to help one another, self-tested with ART (antigen rapid test) kits, and self-isolated if you tested positive.
Businesses and essential workers also did their part, to keep our economy and social services going. They adapted repeatedly to changing SMMs. They coped with supply chain and manpower disruptions, and stayed resilient despite formidable difficulties, especially in the hard-hit sectors.
Thank you for your grit and resourcefulness, you helped us protect Singaporeans’ livelihoods, and prepared ourselves to emerge stronger from the pandemic.
Most of all, I want to thank our healthcare workers. You made tremendous sacrifices, at a heavy personal cost; pulling long shifts, day after day, week after week, since the start of the pandemic; returning to work on rest days to cover for colleagues who caught the virus; putting up with all the safety measures at the hospitals; risking exposure as you cared for infected patients.
Because of you, we have maintained some semblance of normalcy in the past two years. Some countries have seen mass resignations of healthcare workers. But our healthcare team, doctors and nurses stayed at their posts and kept on performing their duties.
So to our healthcare and frontline workers, from the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I want to say: Thank you!
TOWARDS COVID-19 RESILIENCE
Now, we have reached a major milestone in our COVID-19 journey. The overwhelming majority of our population is fully vaccinated, and nearly everyone eligible has received a booster shot.
The Omicron wave has crested and is now subsiding. With many of us already exposed to the virus and recovered, our population has stronger immunity.
Crucially, our healthcare system remains resilient. It was under considerable stress at the peak of the Omicron wave, but it held up.
The load is still heavy, but the pressure is now easing.
In judging how far and fast to ease restrictions, we are very mindful not to stress our healthcare workers and system to breaking point. We must not place an impossible burden on the healthcare workers, and endanger many COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients who urgently need treatment.
At the same time, we must weigh the cost of stringent SMMs on businesses and the economy, and their impact on children needing to learn, youths yearning to interact, families seeking to bond, and communities striving to connect.
Taking all things into consideration, we believe that we are now ready to take a decisive step forward towards living with COVID-19.
We will make the following changes to our SMMs: First, we will double the group size from the current five persons, to 10 persons.
Second, we will allow up to 75 per cent of employees who can work from home to return to their workplaces.
Third, we will increase the capacity limit for larger events and settings (those with more than 1,000 people) to 75 per cent.
Fourth, wearing masks outdoors will now be optional. This is because the risk of outdoor transmission is significantly lower. But indoors, masks will still be mandatory.
Finally, we will maintain safe distancing requirements for now – 1m between groups where masks are off, to minimise transmission in mask-off settings.
These changes will come into effect next Tuesday, Mar 29.
Concurrently, we will ease up cross-border travel substantially.
Earlier, we were cautious because of uncertainty over Omicron’s impact. Now the Omicron situation is well under control.
Nearly all our cases are domestic, originating within the community. Arrivals from abroad constitute only a very small proportion of cases.
We can therefore safely open up our borders.
We will drastically streamline testing and quarantine requirements for travellers. This simplified vaccinated travel framework will let Singaporeans travel abroad more easily – almost like before COVID-19.
It will also lift most restrictions for fully vaccinated visitors entering Singapore. This will reconnect Singapore with the world. It will give a much-needed boost to businesses, particularly the tourism sector, and help Singapore reclaim its position as a business and aviation hub. The MTF will provide the details.
These domestic and cross-border changes represent a major step towards living with COVID-19, but they stop short of a complete opening up.
We remain watchful because COVID-19 may yet bring further surprises.
Some countries have taken a "Freedom Day" approach. They have declared the pandemic over, relaxed all restrictions at once.
Now they are anxiously watching their infection and mortality numbers rising rapidly again. We are choosing to maintain our measured approach, which has served us well over the past two years.
After this major step, we will wait a while to let the situation stabilise. If all goes well, we will ease up further.
But we should also be psychologically prepared for more twists and turns ahead. With more interactions, we too may see another wave of cases.
And Omicron will not be the last variant we encounter. The virus will continue to evolve.
Hopefully, new variants will become progressively milder and more flu-like. But it is also possible that more aggressive and dangerous mutants will turn up, just like Delta did.
If that happens, we may have to backtrack and tighten up our restrictions again.
We cannot rule this out, even though we hope it will not be necessary. But whatever happens, we now have the knowledge and the means to keep everyone safe.
For example, giving everyone another booster jab, or administering an updated vaccine, if necessary.
So please take today’s announcements in the right spirit - resume more normal lives, enjoy larger gatherings of family and friends, go outdoors without masks, or reunite with loved ones abroad.
But do not throw all caution to the wind. Each one of us must still play our part.
Comply with the revised SMMs. If you feel ill, test yourself. If you test positive, isolate yourself at home. If you test negative, and decide to go out, please wear a mask to protect others, even outdoors, just in case.
Let us all continue to exercise personal and social responsibility to keep ourselves well, to keep others safe and to avoid adding to the burden on our healthcare workers.
That way, even when new problems arise, we stand a much better chance of keeping things under control and staying on the path to a new normal.
We have come a long way in our fight against COVID-19. We are not yet at the finish line, though we are getting closer.
Key to our response has been the trust that Singaporeans have placed in your Government, in the medical authorities, and in each other.
Throughout our journey, we have kept faith and supported one another. This solidarity remains crucial as we tackle fresh challenges ahead.
I thank everyone for your continued trust and support. Let us keep it up, and see through this pandemic as one united people.