SINGAPORE - By tightening restrictions now, Singapore is essentially "tapping the brakes" to slow the surge in Covid-19 cases here, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Sept 24).
The move will spread case numbers out over a longer period of time, enabling Singapore's population to build up defences against the virus while preventing its healthcare system from being overwhelmed.
"If you want to be resilient to Covid-19, there must be enough antibodies in the society - which means the number of infections actually can't change very much," Mr Ong explained.
"But you don't want it to happen within a short period of time, with a high peak that makes our system overburdened and unable to cope."
Infection numbers have gone up exponentially since Singapore last eased restrictions on Aug 10, when the daily case count was lower than 100.
On Friday, the country reported 1,650 new cases, although this figure is expected to double by next week.
"Beyond that, there is a range of possibilities, but we cannot rule out cases doubling further," said the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a statement. "To minimise the strain on our overall healthcare capacity, we will have to tighten measures before that happens."
Starting on Monday, people will be allowed to gather in groups of up to only two, with working from home to be the default for the next month.
Addressing reporters at a press conference, Mr Ong outlined how the current tightened measures fit into Singapore's four-stage process to treating the virus as endemic.
As part of the first, preparatory stage - which Singapore is currently in - the country began ramping up capacity to cope with an expected surge in cases.
"But despite this, the Delta variant doesn't follow our script," Mr Ong said. "It has transmitted through the community, and it's driving up daily cases much more quickly than we expected - before our ramped-up plans are fully implemented and before our support systems are fully in place."
Every country that aims to live with the virus will have to contend with similar issues, he added. "So we need to ride out this wave of transmission as best and as safely as we can."
Singapore's current case count of 1,600 cases a day translates to about 26 cases per 100,000 population. In contrast, countries such as America and Britain are seeing about 40 to 50 cases per 100,000 population, while the corresponding figure for other European countries that have reached an equilibrium is about seven to 10.
These are possible reference points for Singapore, which is likely to see cases continuing to rise before declining and stabilising, Mr Ong said.
"We may seem like we are trailing some European countries, which are or have reopened and are living lives quite normally," he observed. "But remember, they paid a huge price in human lives - mostly last year - which we will do whatever we can to minimise."
He expressed his gratitude to healthcare workers, who have shown a "very high level of dedication" to care for patients.
"They are holding up, they are doing their best to cope with the situation," he said. "As a community, we should give them our full support during this period, for doing their job so professionally and with so much commitment and dedication."
In Friday's update, MOH reported that 1,092 coronavirus patients are currently hospitalised, with 162 needing supplemental oxygen and 23 requiring intensive care.
The number of people who fall severely ill or die is rising in tandem with the daily infection count, although "at a much lower level" because of vaccination, Mr Ong said. At present, this group accounts for 0.3 per cent of all those infected.
Infected people who are unvaccinated are 12 times more likely to require intensive care or die than those who are vaccinated, added Singapore's director of medical services Kenneth Mak.
He urged all seniors to get vaccinated, even if they rarely leave their homes.
Said Professor Mak: "We've seen, time and time again, seniors being infected - not because they left the home but because the infection was brought to them by other household members who were infected but did not have any symptoms of the infection at the time of their visit."