Thursday, 23 Sep 2021

Taking a difficult but balanced approach to S'pore's reopening as Covid-19 frustration grows

SINGAPORE – At midnight on July 19, marking the start of “Freedom Day” in Britain, party-goers packed into heaving dance clubs to celebrate the end of Covid-19 lockdowns.

But the reopening has been marred by surging infections – around 50,000 a day – and warnings of overwhelmed hospitals.

Here, the authorities have been eyeing these global developments with concern, even as new daily cases have risen past 100 in recent days.

On Monday (July 26), ministerial statements by Messrs Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong and Gan Kim Yong, as well as clarifications by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, sought to clear the air.

Three questions are worth highlighting because of the public debate – and in some cases, misinformation – surrounding them.

First: Is the Government reversing plans to transition to a Covid-19 endemic state, by returning to phase two (heightened alert)?

The answer is no.

Stricter rules help slow down transmission and give the country time to push vaccination rates up further, protecting vulnerable seniors.

Today, around half of Singaporeans are fully vaccinated, and more than 200,000 of those aged 60 and above are not fully vaccinated.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung put this across graphically when he said Singapore’s opening must be a controlled one: “We are not going to do a big bang – because predictably, things will then blow up.”

He spoke of a three-pronged strategy: Restore economic and social activities, remodel Covid-19 healthcare protocols, and shift the collective psychology.

This includes tapping more community care facilities instead of hospitals, focusing on those with severe illnesses rather than broad infection numbers, as well as differentiating safe management measures for vaccinated people.

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Second: Why were KTVs and nightclubs allowed to operate as food and beverage outlets? Was there inadequate enforcement, and were immigration rules lax?

Mr Shanmugam asked the House to weigh a blanket ban, against helping many legitimate businesses stay afloat. The authorities had to take a risk-based, balanced approach to their appeals, he said.

“Some of them, when you look at the premises, you do question if they can really be F&B. But it requires us to say flat out to the owners: Regardless of what you say, I am not going to believe you and I am not going to allow you to operate as F&B.”

The KTV cluster surfaced on July 12, when the Health Ministry announced it was investigating Covid-19 infections at (clockwise from top left) Club Dolce, Empress KTV and Supreme KTV. ST PHOTOS: CHONG JUN LIANG, GIN TAY

Responding to Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) on whether illicit activities would be pushed further underground, he said pivoting is not the issue; the issue is that there is money to be made in making services such as prostitution available.

“The people who are going to cheat, going to do illegal things, will do them anyway. They will use lounges, flats, warehouses – various places. It goes on regardless of whether we allow the change to F&B.”

Nor would Singapore have had to move to the tightened restrictions if there was just the KTV cluster, he added.

It was the Jurong Fishery Port cluster that triggered the need to go back to phase two (heightened alert) – because it had spread from the ports through the markets and hawkers into the wider community.

There was also on average one police enforcement operation every day. Meanwhile, the immigration authorities quickly scrapped entry into Singapore via the boyfriend/girlfriend category in March – just one month after unilateral opening between Singapore and Vietnam was suspended due to the worsening Covid-19 situation there.

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Third: What exactly happened at Jurong Fishery Port? Were foreign traders allowed to disembark and mingle with workers there?

Investigations are ongoing. What is clear is that contactless delivery rules were in place, but whether they were strictly followed is a question mark.

Strenuous activity meant that workers might adjust their masks or take them off. There is also the possibility of fomite transmission, or the virus surviving on surfaces.

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Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) voiced what is on the minds of Singaporeans frustrated with re-imposed restrictions when he asked if vaccinations could be made mandatory.

But with Covid-19 vaccines only approved for emergency use, mandating them is legally and ethically tricky, and most governments continue not do so for their general adult populations.

Even in places like China, there has been public backlash against extreme enforcement actions such as turning unvaccinated people away from supermarkets.

What is clear is that it is not possible to stop transmissions completely. While it may be expedient to opt for either complete lockdown or a big-bang opening, the ministers on Monday laid out the need for a nuanced approach – one which keeps businesses viable while ensuring public health.

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Singaporeans are understandably anxious to know if this will be the final round of restrictions. But as Finance Minister Lawrence Wong pointed out, one cannot rule out another variant that may not just be more transmissible, but also more lethal.

He also elaborated on the differentiated approach going forward, such as how any loosened restrictions – for example, a religious service involving more than 100 people – will be extended only to fully vaccinated individuals.

While this is easy to grasp for large-scale events, what might alleviate the administrative hassle for businesses – as well as confusion among the public – is if the earlier revised rules for dining could be simplified. Already, some restaurants had limited two diners to a table to avoid any trouble.

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It has been a difficult past year-and-a-half. There was no triumphant emergence from the shadow of Covid-19; instead, countries everywhere have wriggled out of its grasp in fits and starts.

But hope lies in the numbers.

Even with more than $2 billion in support given to workers and businesses over the two periods of heightened alert since May, state coffers here are not expected to take a further hit, with the overall deficit remaining at $11 billion.

The Republic is slated to remain on track for gross domestic product growth of 4 per cent to 6 per cent this year, so long as external demand remains healthy.

By National Day, almost 70 per cent of Singaporeans will have received two doses; by early September, it should be almost 80 per cent.

This means Singapore will have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. It means that the ability to live with Covid-19 as an endemic disease is within reach.

Now – barring a more deadly variant lurking around the corner – everyone just has to play his part.

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