Cautious reopening will give S'pore time to get more people vaccinated: Covid-19 task force

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the task force had received a "whole range of feedback and views" on how to proceed. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - The cautious approach to reopening is to allow the authorities to "buy time" so more people can be vaccinated, said the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 on Friday (Jun 18).

For example, the authorities have limited dining in to a maximum of two people a group from next Monday, instead of five people at the same table as announced earlier.

The aim is to increase this limit to five people in mid-July, barring a superspreader event or another big cluster emerging.

Explaining the need for a calibrated approach, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the task force had received a "whole range of feedback and views" on how to proceed, which fall mainly into two schools of thought.

The first is that the Government should hold off further reopening until a much later date, when Singapore is able to have zero or near-zero Covid-19 cases for many days.

"But this is, in fact, very hard to achieve, and may not even be possible to do given how transmissible the Delta variant is. And if we were to take this approach, it would mean we have restrictive measures in place for many months, which will cause many businesses to fold.

"So that's not a very realistic option," said Mr Wong.

He added that with this approach, Singapore would have to constantly move from open to close.

"I don't think that's a sustainable position, and there may not be a need for us to do that, especially as our vaccination rates continue to go up and provide protection to everyone in Singapore."

The second approach focuses on the argument that Covid-19 is going to be endemic, and that the country's infection rates are very low compared with many other places that have relaxed more restrictions.

Mr Wong said those who think this way would also point to how Singapore has vaccines, arguing that the authorities should "just proceed and to continue to ease up and relax measures and not overreact to each and every new cluster".

"I can understand the sentiments behind this and, indeed, we do want to proceed with our reopening more confidently. But our vaccination rates currently are still not high enough to provide sufficient protection."

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that without higher vaccination rates, the infection numbers will still matter because "high infections can lead to more severe illnesses, especially among those who are more vulnerable".

"By taking a more cautious approach with reopening, we buy time to get more people vaccinated. So the imperative now is to boost vaccination," he added.

Taking all these factors into account, Mr Wong said the task force decided to tread a "very careful path forward based on a rigorous assessment of our current situation" in announcing a progressive reopening.

"We are taking a more calibrated, more careful approach - not swinging to either extreme of shutting down, restricting very tightly all the different activities, nor opening up too recklessly, but taking a more careful approach of allowing some resumption of activities, still with appropriate safeguards and precautions in place, and buy us time for our vaccination rates to go up," he added.

Mr Ong, who like Mr Wong is a co-chair of the task force, had noted at the June 10 press conference that as Covid-19 becomes endemic here, the authorities would shift from just focusing on the number of cases reported each day when deciding measures.

Among other things, the authorities would also look at the condition of those infected - for instance, how many are in intensive care units or need supplemental oxygen.

Asked about the vaccination targets, Mr Wong said that there are two key milestones: 50 per cent of the population to be fully vaccinated, which he believes can be done by August or so, and 75 per cent of the population to be fully vaccinated at a later date.

The task force will progressively ease restrictions both within Singapore and at its borders based on these two milestones, he added.

"If our vaccine supplies come in earlier, and we hope they will, we will do everything we can to do so, then we can ramp up and perhaps achieve these milestones earlier," said Mr Wong.

Commenting on the measures in a Facebook post, President Halimah Yacob said: "I hope that Singaporeans realise that a calibrated approach is essential - while we push on with our plans to improve testing and contact-tracing capabilities and ramp up vaccinations, we must still be nimble enough to respond to the waves of transmissions that may occur."

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