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Singapore will review TraceTogether, might 'stand it down' if no longer needed: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore will review TraceTogether, might 'stand it down' if no longer needed: Ong Ye Kung

A man using the TraceTogether app to enter a hawker centre on Jan 14, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Calvin Oh)

SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Health (MOH) will review the relevance of the TraceTogether app and vaccination-differentiated safe management measures as Singapore makes progress in living with COVID-19, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (Apr 4). 

"On the whole, the costs and benefits of TraceTogether changes as we make further progress in living with COVID-19," Mr Ong said in response to questions from Members of Parliament about the contact tracing app. 

"The MTF (multi-ministry taskforce) will therefore review its relevance and application, to stand it down when it is no longer needed, while maintaining the capability to restart it should we encounter a more dangerous variant of concern."

Mr Ong added that the Health Ministry will also review vaccination-differentiated safe management measures depending on the situation in hospitals. 

"When we are sure that the situation in hospitals is stable and improving, we will review the VDS (vaccination-differentiated safe management measures) and consider if we can reduce the number of settings or remove it entirely," he said.

"Then it will be a matter of individual responsibility of these individuals to take precautions to avoid high transmission settings, or better still, change your mind and get vaccinated."

NO LONGER A NEED TO CONTACT TRACE EVERY CASE

MOH no longer relies on TraceTogether for contact tracing for the general public, Mr Ong pointed out. 

"Cases who self-tested positive and go on P2 protocol do not upload their TraceTogether data, and we rely on them to do the responsible thing to inform their contacts to self-monitor," he said.

"So there is really no need to compare the data between self-reporting and TraceTogether, because having vaccinated the vast majority of our population and determined to live with COVID-19, we have passed that stage of the pandemic where we contact trace every case."

However, Mr Ong acknowledged that agencies that "look after more vulnerable cases", such as schools, still use TraceTogether for contact tracing.

"Further, the aggregated statistics generated by TraceTogether and SafeEntry can give us a good idea of settings that are more susceptible to transmission of the COVID-19 virus," he added.

NEED FOR VDS AND SAFEENTRY 

At the moment, there is still a need for SafeEntry and vaccination-differentiated safe management measures, said Mr Ong. 

"SafeEntry is the most convenient way to check the vaccination status of an individual entering premises. If we decide to do away with VDS, there will be no need for SafeEntry," he added.

Even though the Omicron variant is less severe than Delta, people who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated are still more likely to fall very ill if they are infected, Mr Ong said.

He noted that about 3.5 per cent of Singapore's adult population are not fully vaccinated, but this accounts for more than one-fifth of intensive care unit cases and deaths.

"While the patient load at our public hospitals have eased, hospitals are still very busy. With the recent easing of SMMs (safe management measures), and the resumption of visitors to hospitals starting today, the workload will go up for our healthcare workers. The more cautious and correct course of action now is to keep VDS, and not to risk having more non-fully vaccinated patients getting infected and needing hospital care, and adding workload to our healthcare workers," he said. 

Mr Ong added that individuals who choose not to be vaccinated impose a significant cost to hospitals in terms of patient load, to businesses in operating SafeEntry checks, as well as enforcement agencies in conducting checks.

A CALIBRATED APPROACH TO RELAXED RULES

Mr Ong noted that the relaxed measures that came into effect on Mar 29 and the new vaccinated traveller framework on Apr 1 were "a decisive but calibrated move" by the Government.

"We did not declare a Freedom Day nor did we declare the pandemic to be over, as some countries did. Taking a cautious step by step approach has served us well throughout the pandemic and we will continue to do so," he said.

"That said, we were able to make this decisive move as we observed that the number of daily cases had been steadily declining in recent weeks. More importantly, the number of severe cases needing to be hospitalised has also declined. It is in this context that the MTF assessed the further easing of our SMMs and resumption of many normal activities to be appropriate."

Mr Ong noted that these relaxations will likely cause an uptick in daily cases, which Singapore should be able to ride through without any major changes in the public health posture.

"Once cases subside further, we will consider further easing of the SMMs. This can include reviewing distancing rules between tables in F&B settings ...  I am aware, and in fact, the whole MTF is aware, that 1m versus 80cm makes a huge difference to the F&B establishments. It also makes a huge difference in transmission. So we have to weigh the costs and benefits," he said. 

Mr Ong stressed that treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease does not mean the coronavirus does not exist.

"It is in fact the opposite because endemicity means the disease is constantly there, circulating at a rate that is more predictable and not likely to disrupt normal lives," he told the House.

"We will need to continue to take precautions and adopt appropriate SMMs in order to manage the risk and damage from COVID-19."

There is still some way to treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease because the virus continues to circulate and evolve, posing a risk of mutating into a more dangerous variant of concern, the Health Minister noted. 

"So while we have eased up the SMMs and reopened our borders, the pandemic crisis is not over," he added. "We will have to continue to monitor the local and global situation, do our part to keep our country safe, and continue to work together to tackle whatever challenges that may come our way." 

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Source: CNA/gy(gs)

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