SINGAPORE - More people will come down with Covid-19 as Singapore opens up its economy and moves towards treating the virus as endemic, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Aug 6).
This means that the number of people who become severely ill will go up - especially among the unvaccinated - and the death toll will rise.
Singaporeans must be "psychologically prepared" for this eventuality, even as the Republic embarks on its four-stage plan to reach a new normal, Mr Ong said.
"But we can do our best to minimise the incidence of severe illnesses and deaths... It is therefore very important that we continue to vaccinate as many people as possible."
The country will also continue differentiating among people by vaccination status, in an effort to protect the unvaccinated and limit their exposure to the virus, he said.
Starting next Tuesday, Singapore will embark on the first stage of this four-step reopening, dubbed the "preparatory stage".
This phase will see some easing of travel restrictions, with Singapore resuming entry approvals for fully vaccinated work-pass holders and their dependants.
Subsequently, fully vaccinated travellers from lower-risk countries will be able to serve their stay-home notice (SHN) at home or other suitable accommodations, rather than at dedicated facilities.
The Ministry of Transport is also working on plans to open up "vaccinated travel lanes" that would allow people to travel between Singapore and selected countries without having to serve an SHN.
The SHN requirement would be replaced by frequent testing, Mr Ong said.
"Our companies cannot grow if businessmen and managers cannot travel overseas to meet clients and partners. MNCs (multinational corporations) will find it hard to invest here if their people are not able to travel in and out of Singapore," he added.
"And if this continues, our ability to create jobs, earn a living will be seriously affected."
The preparatory stage is expected to last about a month, until early September. By this time, about 80 per cent of the population should have received both vaccine doses, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.
Mr Wong, along with Mr Ong and Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.
Singapore will then move into "transition stage A". But this is premised on a high vaccination rate and stable overall situation, with no surges that threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, Mr Wong said.
"Can we tell you now that this will never happen? Unfortunately, we can't. It's impossible," he told reporters at a virtual press conference.
"So that's why we are taking this controlled, step-by-step way of reopening. Each step we take, we watch the situation, we monitor, and if things are under control, if we do not end up with a situation where our healthcare system is overwhelmed, then we are prepared to take the next step."
In transition stage A, Singapore will further increase the permitted size of events and further ease border controls.
The country will continue to have a strong system of surveillance testing for travellers, and expand wastewater testing to get early warning of clusters in dormitories and housing estates.
People should also get used to rostered routine testing to slow down virus transmission, Mr Ong said.
If all goes well, Singapore will be able to move to the third stage, called "transition stage B", and eventually arrive at its final goal of being a Covid-19-resilient nation.
"The transition road map will therefore be a very careful balance between lives and livelihoods," Mr Ong said.
"Ours will be a step-by-step approach, feeling our way forward, making judgment calls along the way, instead of one big bang where all restrictions are lifted all at once."
This process will involve testing, as well as differentiated rules based on an individual's vaccination status.
Other safe management measures, such as mask-wearing, are also likely to remain "for quite some time", Mr Ong said.
Singapore's four-stage reopening
• Starts on Aug 10
• Travel restrictions to be eased, including resuming entry approvals for fully vaccinated work pass holders and dependants
• Changes in healthcare protocols, including admitting more infected patients to community care facilities
2. Transition Stage A
• Expected to start in early September
• Further economic reopening with increased size limits for events and less strict border controls
• Wastewater testing to be expanded for early detection of virus clusters
3. Transition Stage B
• Further economic reopening, although differentiated rules based on vaccination status likely to remain
4. Covid-resilient Nation
• The end goal and "new normal" for Singapore