News analysis

Malaysia's PM wants to ease Covid-19 restrictions for the fully vaccinated, but experts wary

Malaysia returned to a "total lockdown" on June 1 after the Covid-19 situation worsened at the end of May.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - A suggestion on Thursday (July 15) by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to ease restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated has raised concerns among health experts who believe they may still be able to transmit the virus.

The government is projecting a transition into the second phase of its four-phase Covid-19 exit plan as early as August, even though the number of daily infections exceeded 13,000 on Thursday, the third consecutive day the country notched record high infections.

Experts remain divided on whether the numbers will fall drastically to below 4,000 by August, a threshold set by the government to move out of an ongoing lockdown.

"At the current vaccination rate, it is expected that by the end of August, some 40 to 50 per cent of the population will be fully vaccinated. Therefore, new cases will most likely be reduced by that time. It may be less than 2,000," Dr Malina Osman, associate professor, epidemiologist and biostatistician at Universiti Putra Malaysia, told The Straits Times.

"But those who have been vaccinated may be able to carry the virus asymptomatically and infect those who are still not vaccinated," she cautioned.

Epidemiologist and biostatistician Kamarul Imran Musa, who is an associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, told ST: "With the current trend of infectivity in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Negeri Sembilan, numbers are unlikely to reach 4,000 by the end of August, unless we can see a plateau in the next week or so."

Movement curbs may still be necessary, he said.

"Data has shown that a small percentage of vaccinated people still get Covid-19 and there is still a possibility of serious complications among vaccinated people. So the best thing to do at the moment is to fully protect yourself and others by limiting your time outside, following health rules, and encouraging others to get the vaccine," he said.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin told a press conference that the government was mulling over easing restrictions for the fully vaccinated as Malaysia worked towards resuming normal activity amid concerns expressed by business groups about the flagging economy and rising unemployment.

"I've asked for relaxation to be considered for those who have received two vaccine doses. This could be for their travel or dining in at restaurants. This will show that while we battle with Covid-19, we can gradually return to normal life," said Mr Muhyiddin.

He described the national vaccination programme as the "light at the end of the tunnel".

"We managed to vaccinate over 421,000 people in a day, and hopefully this can be maintained. Now, our focus is the greater Klang Valley. Through our targeted measures, we can deal with the Covid-19 infections better," he said.

Malaysia has fully vaccinated 12.3 per cent of its population, which is above the 10 per cent target set to transition into phase two.

"If the positive development continues, the whole country may well move to phase two by early August," Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a statement on Wednesday.

Malaysia returned to a "total lockdown" on June 1 after the Covid-19 situation worsened at the end of May.

Only essential sectors are allowed to open under phase one, while phase two will retain social sector curbs and travel bans. The next third phase, earmarked for the end of October, will see most sectors allowed to open, while some social curbs remain. A full reopening is projected from November onwards, once 60 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated and daily cases dip below 500.

Mr Muhyiddin also insisted that the government was dishing out aid to those in need and urged the people who had run out of food or cash to not hang white or black flags outside their homes.

He was referring to separate campaigns launched last week in which a white flag signified that a household was in dire straits while black one indicated a protest against the government's perceived mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis.

The prime minister claimed the kitchens of most people who needed help were already filled with supplies.

"There is no need to hang a white or black flag, but it's okay to hang a blue flag," Mr Muhyiddin said referring to the blue colour of his Perikatan Nasional coalition.