KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's move to ease rules for those fully vaccinated against Covid-19 has been met with mixed reactions, as experts and business owners urge caution in exercising these new freedoms.
Opposition parties have also urged a rethink of the decision ahead of its implementation on Tuesday (Aug 10).
They said more stringent thresholds - such as 60 per cent vaccination coverage and hospital utilisation below 70 per cent - should be met before the nearly nine million people who have completed their shots are issued with "green passes" to travel and dine out.
"A hasty and poorly thought-out reopening would only introduce an additional unpredictable variable into the pandemic equation, further burdening the struggling healthcare system," Pakatan Harapan's health committee said in an immediate response to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's announcement on Sunday.
Local tourism within states or federal territories, non-contact outdoor sports and exercise, as well as dining at eateries will be allowed for the fully vaccinated in areas that have progressed to at least phase two of the National Recovery Plan (NRP), which covers four million vaccinated adults.
The states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Perak, Penang and Sabah are at phase two while Perlis, Sarawak and the federal territory of Labuan have entered phase three, which already allows certain economic and social activities to resume.
Meanwhile, fully vaccinated spouses, as well as parents and their children younger than 18, are allowed to travel across district or state lines to meet up, regardless of which phase the area is in.
Vaccinated people with a residence in the country will be allowed to undergo quarantine at home when returning to Malaysia.
Those who are vaccinated will also be allowed to return to places of worship.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin said on Monday that all adults in Malaysia are expected to be fully vaccinated by October.
Still, experts urged greater caution as the easing of restrictions could cause Covid-19 cases - which breached the 20,000 per day mark last week - to rise further. Malaysia has seen infections surge since April, fuelled by the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus.
"A premature move," said paediatrician Amar Singh, who helped draft the Health Emergency Action Plan, a civil society initiative. "Delta can infect the vaccinated and they can transmit to others."
Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia president Raj Kumar Maharajah said present restrictions could not be completely lifted, as the virus was still mutating, and suggested the slight easing from Tuesday would give pointers for the next step.
"We cannot let our guard down. I think it's still early to lift restrictions for the fully vaccinated. I propose a wait-and-see approach for the moment," he said.
Mr Muhyiddin has warned the "government will not hesitate to revoke these conveniences if there are breaches of guidelines".
Malaysia reported 360 Covid-19 deaths on Sunday, a rate of one victim every four minutes, although the figure dropped to 212 on Monday for a total toll of 10,961 since the pandemic began. Another 17,236 infections were also recorded, bringing the tally to 1,279,776.
More than 1,090 patients remain in intensive care units (ICUs), with some states reporting that their ICU wards were operating at over 80 per cent capacity.
But Senior Minister for Security Hishammuddin Hussein said on Monday that "vaccines supplied to the community are effective in protecting against severe symptoms", as evidenced by 96 per cent of new cases not requiring hospitalisation.
Business owners have welcomed the move to ease controls.
SME Association of Malaysia president Michael Kang, a member of the government's National Recovery Council, said: "We must recognise this as the new norm and know how to coexist with the virus."
Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia president Kuljit Singh also said the relaxations were mainly in phase two and three areas where the pandemic was not as critical as in the Klang Valley. Kuala Lumpur and Selangor have contributed about half of new infections in recent weeks, and have yet to exit phase one.
"In order to start the economy somewhere, and also (considering) the social and mental aspects of the pandemic, it's best to start (reopening)," The Malaysian Insight reported him as saying.