Coronavirus: Singapore must tread carefully as circuit breaker measures are eased, says expert

Customer queue outside a barber shop in Tiong Bahru Plaza as circuit breaker measures ease on May 13, 2020.
Customer queue outside a barber shop in Tiong Bahru Plaza as circuit breaker measures ease on May 13, 2020.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Singapore will need to tread carefully as it eases its circuit breaker measures amid the Covid-19 outbreak, as there could still be a "large peak" in infections down the road, an expert has warned.

"It is unlikely we are past our peak," said Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, during an interview with The Straits Times.

"Maybe (we are) past the peak for the first wave of infections, but if in a period after circuit breaker, we are not moving towards a situation where we're controlling the epidemic - (that is, where) we are letting it become unmitigated, then I think we can expect to have a large peak going forward."

More than 25,000 people in Singapore have been infected with the coronavirus.

While the country's total case count continues to rise - with hundreds of new infections reported daily - the numbers are starting to stabilise. The vast majority of new cases are foreign workers who live in dormitories.

China and Germany both saw a rebound in infections after easing lockdown restrictions.

"If we completely let our guard down and go back to life as it was... you will end up with something that becomes like an exponential growth in the number of infections," said Prof Cook.

In the case of Germany, "they went into lockdown earlier than us, exited lockdown earlier than us, and have seen a bit of a rebound since then", he said.

"That maybe suggests that they have over-relaxed... So, we'll be, I think, tailoring quite carefully the response over the next few months to make sure that we don't relax too much too soon."

Singapore's economy is set to reopen in phases after June 1, with the easing of the tighter measures of the circuit breaker period.

The Government has said it will keep a close eye on the number of new infections to decide how soon more restrictions can be lifted. If the situation flares up again, circuit breaker measures could be reintroduced.

 
 
 

Prof Cook, an expert in infectious disease modelling, had earlier predicted - correctly - that Covid-19 infections could reach 10,000 or 20,000 in Singapore by end-April.

As restrictions are eased, it will be important to keep an eye out for not just for new, but unlinked cases, Prof Cook added.

This is because such cases are "an indication that we may be missing infections", he said.

Asked on Wednesday (May 13) what the worst-case scenario could be, he suggested that if the country did nothing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it could see as many as tens of thousands of new infections a day.

Prof Cook said studies show that, during the swine flu – or H1N1 flu – outbreak in Singapore in 2009, about 17 per cent of the adult population was infected in the first wave.

"If we include children, the figure is probably closer to 20 per cent... that is, around one million people in Singapore," Prof Cook said.

 
 
 

“We don’t know exactly, but the shape of the epidemic curve suggests that at its peak, around 50,000 people might have been infected daily” here during the swine flu outbreak

Social distancing and staying at home need to continue, he said.

"When we move out of circuit breaker, it won't be life as normal for some time yet," Prof Cook added.