SINGAPORE - Singapore's current set of Covid-19 safe management rules will stay in place during the upcoming Chinese New Year period from Feb 1, in view of a likely surge of infections brought about by the new Omicron variant, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Wednesday (Jan 5).
Group sizes for gathering and dining at restaurants have been capped at five since November, when Singapore emerged from an outbreak caused by the earlier Delta variant.
Mr Wong, who is a co-chair of the multi-ministry task force handling Covid-19, said during a press conference that the present posture would be maintained as he could not imagine the Omicron wave passing before Chinese New Year.
"Chinese New Year may be a time when Omicron cases are rising," he said. "So we cannot afford to have more superspreader events taking place during that time. And therefore we would like to encourage and urge everyone to continue exercising personal and social responsibility and to comply and cooperate with all the safe management measures.
"Let's all do our part to keep our family members, our friends and our loved ones safe even as we usher in the new year."
Mr Wong pointed to the New Year’s Eve celebration at Clarke Quay, which enforcement agencies are investigating, as an example of a potential superspreading event, with blatant, unacceptable breaches of safe management measures (SMMs).
The gathering was caught on video and is believed to have involved hundreds in a spontaneous countdown party.
“Our investigations showed that this was not an organised event,” said Mr Wong. “What happened was that people started gathering together, they got caught up in the moment and soon we had a crowd of more than 100 people at that location, with many flouting the rules - no SMMs, no safe distancing - and clearly it was a potential superspreader event."
He added: “Such actions are not acceptable, especially when we are still in the midst of a pandemic... We are reviewing CCTV footage to identify the culprits. These people will be called in for interviews, and enforcement action will be taken against those who have breached the rules.”
Mr Wong stressed that the intention was to stick, as far as possible, with the current set of SMMs to ride through the coming wave of Omicron infections.
“We don’t intend to relax further at this time, and we will try not to have to tighten,” he said.
But he added: “In the event that the healthcare system comes under tremendous pressure, then as a last resort, we may have no choice but to tighten some of our measures.”
There were 842 new Covid-19 cases in Singapore as at Tuesday, with the weekly infection growth rate - the ratio of community cases for the past week over the week before - exceeding one for the first time since Nov 12.
This indicates that the number of new weekly Covid-19 cases is increasing.
Omicron infections now make up close to 20 per cent of cases in Singapore and officials have warned of an imminent wave that the country must be prepared for.
On Wednesday, Mr Wong added: “The indicators now suggest that this surge of Omicron infections in the community will be happening soon.”
He said Singapore has done everything it can to brace for this - such as by using the “relative period of calm” in December to strengthen its healthcare system and to review and update healthcare protocols.
“Our situation in Singapore is different from that in America and many European countries. There, they had moved to liberalise, open up, remove many, if not all of their restrictions. Then when the Omicron surge happened in these countries, many of them reinstated restrictions, as you can see over the recent period,” Mr Wong said.
“In Singapore, we have maintained the whole series of basic and sensible safe management measures, be it wearing of masks, keeping a safe distance from one another, or having group sizes maintained at a certain level. We believe these safe management measures are important and appropriate.”
Singapore’s key priority is to protect its healthcare system, he added.
He said: “So if our hospital beds and our ICUs (intensive care units) are not overwhelmed, then indeed we will be able to ride through this upcoming wave based on our current SMM settings.
“And we are hopeful that this will indeed be the case, especially given the indications that Omicron cases are not as severe. But we also must be prepared for all contingencies.”
Mr Wong acknowledged that there was considerable fatigue and frustration in keeping up with the rules over the past two-year battle against Covid-19. But he urged people to continue to stay disciplined and to comply with SMMs.
“Then we have a much higher chance of getting through this upcoming wave without having to tighten further,” he said.
“But if we were to let our guard down and take unnecessary risks, then transmission will be amplified, the infection wave will be much larger, we will end up with greater pressure on our healthcare system - and we may have no choice but to tighten.”