SINGAPORE - From Monday (Sept 27), people will be allowed to gather in only groups of two, as Singapore tightens restrictions to slow the exponential rise in Covid-19 cases.
These measures will last a month and will be lifted on Oct 25, with the rules reviewed in two weeks and adjusted, depending on the community situation.
This difficult decision is necessary to prevent the spike in infections from overwhelming the healthcare system, and buy time to scale up home recovery and home care services, said Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong on Friday.
"I know that many Singaporeans and businesses will be disappointed by today's announcement. I want to assure you that Singapore remains committed to reopening," said Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic.
"The journey may take longer so that we can do so safely. We seek your patience and support while we adjust our response to ride this wave and future waves of infections."
The country reported 1,500 new cases on Thursday. But the number could double to 3,200 by next week if the current trend continues.
Singapore is activating its plans to be able to deal with 5,000 cases a day, fellow task force member and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said.
The country last eased restrictions six weeks ago, when fully vaccinated individuals were allowed to dine at eateries in groups of up to five.
At the time, daily case numbers were under 100 a day.
Under the new rules, most eateries will be able to take in up to only two fully vaccinated diners per group.
There are no changes to rules for hawker centres and coffee shops, where two people can eat regardless of their vaccination status.
Working from home will be the default for the coming month, with those unable to do so encouraged to test themselves weekly.
At the press conference, Mr Ong also addressed frustrations that have emerged over the home recovery programme after people took to social media to say they were unable to contact anyone for advice about their specific circumstances.
The Singapore Armed Forces has stepped in to beef up support for the home recovery programme.
About 1,200 beds will be added at new community treatment facilities for those who are not seriously ill but have underlying conditions.
This will allow the ministry to progressively clear the backlog, he said.
Mr Ong added that Singapore is seeing a slight slowing in the rate of increase, but stressed that it is "very early days" yet.
The eventual aim is for cases to hit a peak and then slowly decline as they reach a new equilibrium.
"We may seem like we are trailing some European countries, which are or have reopened and are living lives quite normally," Mr Ong added. "But remember - they paid a huge price in human lives, mostly last year, which we will do whatever we can to minimise."
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong also announced that a $650 million support package - comprising Jobs Support Scheme subsidies, rental waivers and relief for taxi and private-hire car drivers - will be rolled out to help businesses impacted by the latest restrictions.
There will be no draw on past reserves.
Mr Wong added that Singapore's approach to the latest restrictions is a much more targeted one.
For instance, the capacity limit for large events involving only fully vaccinated people remains unchanged at 1,000 attendees.
This is because such events pose a lower risk, and have not resulted in large transmission clusters, he said.
"We do not expect numbers to come down at all. In fact, they will continue to rise," Mr Wong noted.
"But hopefully at a slower rate than before, so that we can ride through this wave without overwhelming our healthcare system."
But even after the current wave of infections is past, Singapore is likely to see case numbers stabilise at a higher level than what the country has been used to so far.
"In other words, we are not going back to a scenario of low daily cases any more," Mr Wong added.
"It's not going to be possible because we are moving forward, to learn to live with the virus, and we are continuing with our reopening plans."