News Analysis

December a litmus test that can signal need for tightening, or allow for more easing of Covid-19 measures

The upcoming year-end holidays and festivities will likely see a surge in socialising, says the writer.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Given Singapore's slow and cautious approach to opening up, I was rather surprised by the decision to allow from Monday (Nov 22) five vaccinated people from different households to dine together or to visit.

This is because the upcoming year-end holidays and festivities will likely see a surge in socialising.

As Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said, moving from two to five is a big jump. He gave the example of people meeting others twice a day.

One infected person having two meals with one other person means a potential exposure to two people. The same person having lunch with four friends and dinner with four others could spread the virus to eight others.

Now if this was last month, most people were unlikely to have double meetings a day. But December is a different kettle of fish altogether.

It has traditionally been a time for partying and socialising, as school is out and bonuses in. So a lot more interaction can be expected.

However, many seniors have recently received their booster jabs, which raises their antibody levels and protects them against not just serious illness, but also infection.

As Mr Ong also said: "If we miss this window and delay opening until next year, the protection from boosters against infection and symptomatic disease may weaken by then, and the case numbers and public health outcomes will likely be worse than if we open up now."

Currently, more than 20 per cent of the population have received their booster shots. This is expected to go up to 50 per cent by year end.

The question then is what happens next year when, as Mr Ong said, protection from boosters may wane.

He speaks of the current period as a window. Surely measures that have been relaxed this month would remain relaxed next year - when protection from boosters weaken.

So will Singapore again see a surge in serious illness requiring intensive care? Will intensive care unit (ICU) beds fill up and will electives have to be deferred to cope with a higher number of critically ill Covid-19 patients?

This is possible, unless the vulnerable go for another round of boosters, the unvaccinated get vaccinated, or more measures are put in place.

Austria goes into full lockdown on Monday as cases surge and hospitals in Salzburg, one of the country's nine states, start triaging critically ill patients to decide who gets care in ICUs, given the shortage of such beds.

It has also become the first Western country to make Covid-19 vaccination compulsory, from February next year. Announcing this on Friday, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said: "For a long time, it was consensus in the country that a vaccine mandate is not necessary, but we have to face reality."

Data shows that serious illness tends to dog those who have not been vaccinated. This group is diminishing in Singapore and stands at 5 per cent of the population; but that is still a lot of people.

Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services, said that for people 60 years and older who get infected, 29.8 per cent who have not been fully vaccinated become severely ill, against 4.1 per cent for those fully vaccinated and 0.85 per cent for those who have received their booster jabs.

The multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 has added a new restriction on the unvaccinated that might cap the number of people who fall seriously ill.

It has expanded the vaccination-differentiated measures to public libraries and selected activities in community clubs or centres under the People's Association from next month.

And from next year, pre-event testing will no longer allow an unvaccinated person to enter areas where vaccination-differentiated measures are in force, such as shopping malls.

These moves will reduce unvaccinated individuals' exposure to the virus and hopefully also reduce the number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients.

On the treatment end, there are now new drugs that significantly reduce the severity of the illness in those infected.

Hopefully, these will be enough to keep the number of seriously ill patients down, and the number of deaths low as Singapore continues to ease restrictions that have become more stifling the longer they remain in place.

December will be the litmus test. If it does not bring a surge of seriously ill patients filling up hospital beds, it will be a strong signal that it is time to switch from treating Covid-19 as pandemic to endemic.

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