Singapore needs three brakes to stop Covid-19 from hurtling out of control: Ong Ye Kung

In Singapore, the three sets of brakes are safe-management measures, border controls and vaccination and booster take-up rates.
In Singapore, the three sets of brakes are safe-management measures, border controls and vaccination and booster take-up rates.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - If Singapore's battle with Covid-19 can be compared to a bicycle rolling downhill, the country's extensive rules are brakes to prevent the ride from hurtling out of control.

"You do nothing, it goes faster and faster until you lose control and it crashes," said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, who drew on this analogy at a press conference on Monday (Nov 8).

"That is why we apply brakes - so that the bike goes downhill at a controlled speed and we can safely arrive at our destination."

On Monday, the multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic announced a series of easing measures that will kick in over the coming week. These include larger group sizes for household members dining out, as well as the resumption of team sports for fully-vaccinated people who test negative for the virus.

"We have been careful in putting together this package of adjustments, which we hope would be meaningful for families to dine together, as well as for sports, school life and other activities to resume - all this, while keeping risks under control," said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force along with Mr Ong and Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong.

In Singapore, the three sets of brakes are safe-management measures, border controls and vaccination and booster take-up rates.

With the Covid-19 situation stabilising - Sunday's weekly infection growth rate was 0.81, meaning that the number of new cases is starting to fall - the country is able to ease up on certain measures, Mr Ong said.

This includes domestic safe management measures as well as border controls for certain Asean countries where the Covid-19 situation is "fast stabilising". Singapore yesterday announced that it would be adjusting the risk classification for several countries - including Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam - allowing freer travel to and from these places.

On the vaccination front, 95 per cent of Singapore's eligible population has gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, Mr Ong said, adding that this is a "tremendous feat".

The booster programme is also progressing well, with 50 per cent of the population expected to have gotten their booster shot by the end of the year.

And in the second half of this month, the Expert Committee on Covid-19 Vaccination is expected to make its recommendations for the use Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty vaccine to be used in children aged five to 11.

The Government will monitor the situation and open up further if things remain stable and the healthcare system is not at risk of being overwhelmed, said Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong.

He added that Singapore's approach is to do things in a "progressive way", rather than open up in a free-for-all fashion once a certain target has been met.

"We don't really want to dismantle the brakes," Mr Gan observed. "We want to be able to continue to monitor as we ease off the brakes and allow the bicycle to continue the journey.

At Monday's press conference, Mr Ong was also asked if Singapore's strategy is to use a combination of vaccines and natural infections to achieve "herd immunity", and if the number of infected people will impact the Government's decision to further ease restrictions.

"I do not think we want to say that we use infections as a way for us to reach herd immunity. We still want to largely use vaccinations and boosters," Mr Ong responded.

He observed that other countries saw natural infection rates of between 5 and 12 per cent before they started to achieve "some form of equilibrium", although this likely depended on a variety of factors.

In Singapore, as vaccines are not 100 per cent effective at preventing infection, people are building up antibodies against the virus through both vaccination and natural infection, he added.

What the country needs to do is to keep tapping on the brakes - striking a balance between safe management measures, vaccinations and ensuring that hospitals are not overwhelmed, Mr Ong said.

"We balance the three - neither Freedom Day nor Zero Covid - and just keep on controlling the speed of our progression. And I think we will get there."