Travel restrictions will be eased and health processes simplified as Singapore stays the course on living with Covid-19, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The city-state will press on with its strategy of living with the virus, with a “new normal” expected to be between three and six months away. Right now, the crucial step is to update mindsets on the virus, Lee said in his ninth address to the nation since the pandemic began.
This means treating Covid-19 as a serious adversary without living in fear of it, and adjusting healthcare and recovery measures to prioritise those at greatest risk of severe illness, he told the nation in an address on October 9.
Singapore will also “drastically simplify” its healthcare protocols, said Lee, who acknowledged people’s concerns and frustrations about keeping up with new policies and changes to measures.
“No more complicated flow charts. People must be clear what to do if they test positive, or if they come into contact with someone who is infected,” he said in the live broadcast.
To this end, home recovery will become the default for almost everyone in Singapore from October 10, except the very youngest and oldest of patients and for those above 50 who are unvaccinated, the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 announced on October 9.
Testing and isolation protocols have also been streamlined to three pathways that the task force said will apply to the vast majority of cases. The revised protocols and simplified time-based discharge approach – most patients will automatically exit home isolation after 10 days – will take effect from October 11.
Health minister Ong Ye Kung said that authorities had reset these Covid-19 protocols as the Delta variant causes high viral loads early in an infection that can be caught by a rapid test, and balanced against the unsustainability of restricting large numbers of people for prolonged periods to try and catch every case.
“A system like that is less watertight than today’s quarantine system, but it can significantly and substantively manage the risk,” he said at a multi-ministry taskforce press conference that followed Lee’s address.
Unlike last year, when the consequences of infection were serious, widespread vaccination here has meant that more than 98 per cent of cases now have mild or no symptoms and can recover well at home just like if they had contracted the flu, said Lee.
Only two per cent or fewer developed serious illness, while 0.2 per cent, or two out of every thousand cases – have died or needed intensive care unit (ICU) treatment, he noted.
“In other words, Covid-19 is no longer a dangerous disease for most of us,” he said.
Now, the threat of Covid-19 is mainly to seniors – those aged 60 and above who are not vaccinated, or 80 and above even if they are vaccinated, said Lee.
A disproportionate number of cases with poor outcomes were unvaccinated seniors – while they account for barely 1.5 per cent of the population, they made up two-thirds of cases that needed ICU care or died.
“The remaining one-third were vaccinated seniors,” Lee said. “We feel every single loss keenly. My deepest sympathies and condolences to all the families.”
Lee urged unvaccinated elders to get their vaccines, while those who have been vaccinated should go for their booster shots. The third jab reduces a senior’s risk of severe infection by more than 10 times, he said.
“Or to put it in another way, to the virus, the booster shot makes a vaccinated 80-year-old look like a much younger vaccinated 50-plus year-old,” he said.
Noting that 142 people have died so far with six deaths on October 8 alone, Singapore’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak said vaccination remains the key strategy in reducing the risk of developing severe infection.
“This is a sad statistic and we should not be numb to the fact that when a person develops a severe Covid-19 infection, he does have a high risk of dying from that infection,” he said.
From October 9, the booster shots regime will be expanded to healthcare and front-line workers, staff in settings such as aged homes, and to people aged 30 and above.
Living with Covid-19 also means reconnecting Singapore with the world and global supply chains so as to preserve Singapore’s hub status, said Lee.
As part of this reopening, the government announced on October 9 that Singapore will allow quarantine-free travel to eight more countries – including the US, Britain and Canada – from later this month and South Korea from November 15.
Minister for Transport S Iswaran who was also at the press conference said that together with Brunei and Germany (which are already on the scheme), the 11 countries account for about a tenth of pre-Covid-19 annual passenger arrivals at Changi Airport.
“While still a far cry from where we were pre-Covid, this is a significant step in the reopening of our borders and crucial to reclaiming and rebuilding our status as an international aviation hub with global connectivity,” he said.
The next few months will be trying as daily cases continue to rise for a few more weeks, but the surge will level off hopefully within a month, Lee said.
Everyone has a part to play in ensuring that the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed, he added. This includes cutting back on social activities, and not rushing to hospitals’ accident and emergency departments if they have mild symptoms, so that bed capacity is reserved for those who need it most.
“Unity of purpose and hearts is crucial to get us through the next few months,” he stressed.
Finance minister Lawrence Wong said that while some have called for a faster relaxation of the rules, others have expressed concerns about the health and well-being of their elders and the safety of their young children.
He said the government is taking all these considerations to heart as it develops Singapore’s Covid-19 response and strategy.
“We want to ensure that we will always have the ability to provide medical care to anyone who falls seriously ill from Covid-19,” he said. “And that’s why we will ease out of our stabilisation measures in a calibrated manner.”
Lee said people will know when the new normal has been reached – restrictions will largely be lifted, with only light measures in place; daily new cases will be stable at hundreds a day without growing; and hospitals will be able to go back to business as usual.
“We are in a much better position now, than a year or even six months ago,” he said. “Sometimes it may not feel like it, but we are making steady progress towards the new normal.”
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK