No pre-departure COVID-19 tests for travellers from China as severe cases can originate from anywhere: Ong Ye Kung
SINGAPORE: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Monday (Jan 9) characterised Singapore's border control stance as somewhere between stringent and liberal, as he laid out the country's response to the global COVID-19 situation.
Of particular concern to Members of Parliament - what Singapore was doing as China loosened travel restrictions, amid a surge in cases there.
Mr Ong explained that Singapore will not impose pre-departure tests on travellers from China as severe cases can originate from anywhere.
Putting up such requirements, he said, raises the question of travellers from other regions that contribute more infections and severe cases.
"How about local community settings which we know are conducive to spreading the disease and can drive infection numbers and severe cases?" Mr Ong asked.
"By triggering PDT (pre-departure test requirements) on travellers from one part of the world experiencing high infection numbers, are we contributing to an international precedent of imposing tests on travellers from countries going through an infection wave? How will other countries treat travellers from Singapore when we encounter another infection wave?"
Several countries, including the United States, Japan and Australia, have imposed curbs on travellers from China.
On Sunday, China lifted all border controls and pandemic curbs on Sunday, ending three years of a strict zero-COVID policy. This included scrapping quarantine requirements for international arrivals, and reopening sea and land crossings with Hong Kong.
Chinese authorities said previously that outbound travel for citizens will also be resumed in an “orderly” manner.
Despite China's big infection wave, Mr Ong said travellers from the country only accounted for a small percentage of imported COVID-19 cases in Singapore.
In the four weeks leading up to Jan 1, he said Singapore had detected about 200 COVID-positive travellers from China, accounting for less than 5 per cent of total imported infections and one out of seven severe cases.
There have also been no severe infection cases coming from China since Jan 1.
He attributed the low number of imported infections to low travel volumes between Singapore and China, high vaccination rates and Singapore's current measures - including maintaining a test requirement for travellers who are not fully vaccinated.
Currently, Singapore runs 38 weekly flights from China, receiving between 700 and 1,000 arrivals every day. This is less than 10 per cent pre-pandemic, when the country ran around 400 weekly flights from China, he said.
Mr Ong was responding in a ministerial statement to concerns by Members of Parliament that China's reopening could trigger a new wave of infection in Singapore and force the reimposition of social restrictions.
Listing a range of responses by various countries - from not putting up any borders measures to the imposition of a blanket pre-departure test requirement, he said Singapore was not "the tightest or the most liberal, but somewhere in between".
"We do not discriminate because severe cases can originate from any country, any region in the world, as shown by our data," he said.
Sharing new statistics, he said that imported infections accounted for about 5 per cent to 10 per cent of total infections detected in Singapore. The bulk of imported infections came from ASEAN countries (more than 50 per cent), followed by the rest of Asia (around 15 per cent), Europe (11 per cent) and the Middle East (9 per cent).
However, he warned against complacency.
"The measures may work now, but not permanently," he said. "We will continually assess the situation and if need be, make adjustments or implement new measures. At all times, our decisions must be based on science, evidence and data."
While the COVID-19 situation in Singapore is under control, the threat of a new and more dangerous variant looms as the virus continues to spread throughout the world.
"It may possess worrying characteristics – escape vaccine protection, be more infectious and lead to more severe cases, which would be very bad news. A nightmare variant can knock us back to almost square one," said Mr Ong.
"We must then be prepared to hunker down," he said. "We may need to reinstate measures such as strict border controls, quarantine for travellers, social restrictions including limits on group sizes, until a new and effective vaccine is developed."
However, so far, Mr Ong said data from non-profit organisation GISAID shows that the epidemic in China is driven by variants that are well known and have been circulating in other regions of the world.
"Our local sequencing efforts on infected travellers from China further supports this," he said. "The majority are BA.5.2 and BF.7 strains, which have already been detected in Singapore and other countries for months."
"This is a huge relief. What we fear and worry most – a new dangerous variant that evades vaccine protection coming out from China as the virus spreads throughout their population has not materialised yet," he said, adding that the Health Ministry will continue to stay vigilant and plug itself deeply into the global surveillance system.
With many regions in the northern hemisphere currently experiencing rising infections of both COVID-19 and influenza over the winter season, he urged the public to keep up to date with their vaccinations.
"New infection waves are bound to start in Singapore from time to time, over and over again, as variants with immune escape emerge, protection from vaccines and previous infections wane, and reinfections increase," he said.
"While we step up global surveillance and consider border measures whenever we feel threatened, remember the best defence and which every one of us can play a part, is to have up-to-date vaccinations."
"As we move into this new norm, we will never be complacent, but our responses need to be based on science, evidence and data. We are ready to adjust policies whenever necessary," he said.
"We will always do our best to maintain our way of life and not go back to the days of lockdowns unless absolutely necessary."