SINGAPORE - Singapore is likely to soon see a "significant wave" of Covid-19 cases as the more infectious Omicron variant spreads through the community, which could strain its healthcare capacity.
To protect seniors and healthcare workers, the authorities will suspend in-person visits to all hospital wards and residential care homes for a period of four weeks, from Jan 24 to Feb 20.
It will also expand the national booster programme to cover those aged 12 to 17, and adjust health protocols to allow more groups of patients assessed to be low-risk to self-isolate and recover at home, including children aged five to 11.
Existing safe management measures, such as dining in groups of five, will also be maintained through the Chinese New Year festive period to lower the risk of transmission and reduce the stress on the healthcare system, said Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong on Friday (Jan 21).
Mr Gan noted at a press conference that about 70 per cent of daily cases are now of the Omicron variant, which has become the dominant strain in place of Delta. This proportion could be even higher - close to 90 per cent or more, he added.
So far, most of the Omicron cases have been mild, especially among those who have been fully vaccinated and even more so for those who have received a booster shot, said the minister, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling the pandemic.
As a significant proportion of the workforce may be infected with Covid-19, businesses should put in place robust continuity plans to mitigate disruptions to their operations, particularly those in the essential services, Mr Gan added.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force with Mr Gan and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, said it is very likely that the Omicron peak will exceed the previous peak from the Delta variant.
Noting that the authorities have said the Omicron wave could rise to 15,000 daily cases, Mr Wong said it is "very possible" that the peak may well be higher than that.
Other countries have seen an Omicron infection rate of about 400 infected persons per 100,000 persons, he said.
"Now if you translate that to Singapore's population, we are talking easily 20,000 to 25,000 infected cases a day," added Mr Wong.
But he stressed that the focus should not be on headline infection numbers, but on the number of people who are severely ill and who need hospital or intensive care.
"And in that regard, we are hopeful that we can ride through this Omicron wave without having to tighten our measures," he said.
Mr Gan acknowledged that many people have hoped for safe management measures (SMMs) to be relaxed ahead of the holiday period.
"However, it is important that we continue with our existing SMMs to help prevent overloading our healthcare system, even as we experience a surge in cases from the Omicron variant," he said.
This means that the permitted group size for Chinese New Year remains at five people, with households allowed to receive only five unique visitors a day.
Restaurants are also not allowed to take bookings for multiple tables of five, unless all members are from the same household.
To free up hospital capacity for the impending Omicron wave, the Ministry of Health (MOH) will reduce the isolation period for fully vaccinated people who are unwell and have tested positive to a maximum of seven days, down from 10 days currently. The same applies to children under 12.
This is because studies from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases have shown that people with Omicron infections have a lower viral load than if they had been infected by the Delta variant.
However, unvaccinated people will still have to be isolated for 14 days if infected.
People will also be allowed to leave isolation earlier if they are recovering well and if symptoms have improved, even if they are warded in treatment facilities.
"These changes enable us to deal more nimbly with Omicron and minimise disruption to normal activities for fully vaccinated and boosted persons even as case numbers continue to rise," said MOH.
The rules will also be eased for travellers arriving on vaccinated travel lane flights from Monday (Jan 24), as imported cases form a shrinking proportion of Singapore’s total cases.
They will no longer need to take antigen rapid tests daily for a week after their arrival – only on days when they wish to go out.
And if they test positive, they will not have to take a confirmatory polymerase chain reaction test. Instead, they are simply required to self-isolate for 72 hours before checking again to see if they are now negative.
Mr Ong also reiterated the importance of vaccination, stressing that unvaccinated people have a disproportionately large impact on the healthcare system if they contract Covid-19.
He acknowledged that Delta is more severe than Omicron, where studies have shown that infections are much less severe for those who have been vaccinated, received their booster shots, or recovered from natural infection.
“But we are not so sure that the same is true for individuals who are unvaccinated and Covid-naive.”
Asked what Singapore would do when the country hits the peak of the Omicron wave, the ministers replied that the country would make decisions based on the situation then.
Mr Ong said Singapore is using the situation in Britain, South Africa and the United States as reference points, and that the Omicron wave in these countries took four to six weeks to peak.
“Omicron is so transmissible, so when the numbers are so huge, at some point you’ve run out of people to infect and then you will start to come down,” he added.
But he also pointed out that every country is different, and that some have had many prior infections or lower vaccination levels than Singapore.
“There are certain expectations that we have a plan – we plan beforehand that on this day, this time, we will do this or that based on certain metrics,” said Mr Ong.
“But actually we are in a fog of war... Every variant is different and behaves differently, and you just have to go through it, judge the situation and make decisions along the way.”