Singapore's unique position means few yardsticks to refer to in Covid-19 fight: Kenneth Mak

Over 80 per cent of Singapore's population is fully vaccinated. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Singapore's high vaccination rate and relatively low case numbers put it in a unique position worldwide, which means there are few precedents it can refer to in deciding on its next move, said the Republic's director of medical services Kenneth Mak on Friday (Sept 10).

Few other countries have managed to attain such high vaccination rates - 81 per cent of Singapore's population is fully vaccinated.

And many countries that have - such as the United Kingdom (65 per cent) and Israel (61 per cent), which both relied heavily on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine - battled high case numbers before they got there, he said.

Herd immunity in these countries is therefore different, Associate Professor Mak added at a press conference by the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic.

"Because there are very few countries before us who have taken the steps that we have taken, there are very few precedents that we can look at to give us the confidence of knowing where our trajectory is going," he added.

This is why Singapore is putting on the brakes as the number of infections rises, to assess if the number of cases in the intensive care unit (ICU) rises in tandem.

Singapore, the UK and Israel have all seen a recent uptick in the number of Covid-19 cases.

In the UK, this surge in cases has not translated to a corresponding increase in hospitalisations, intensive care requirements or deaths, Prof Mak said.

However, evidence from Israel is less clear, with the country having seen some increase in the number of people requiring intensive care, as well as the number of deaths.

Locally, the number of people in the ICU has stayed relatively low, at six as at Friday (Sept 10).

But Prof Mak pointed out that it takes around two weeks for an infected person to deteriorate to the point they require intensive care. It is therefore important to track whether ICU cases rise over the next two weeks.

If cases rise along the same trajectory as the overall number of cases now, that is a cause for concern, he observed.

"It may be that we then need to think about additional measures that need to be taken, to dampen down transmission that takes place in the community," Prof Mak said.

But if ICU case numbers remain stable or increase very slowly, Singapore's healthcare system is more likely to be able to cope. The country can then continue on its path towards living with Covid-19.

At Friday's press conference, the task force was asked about the specific metrics that inform Singapore's decision to tighten or loosen restrictions.

In response, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the Government monitors the situation as a whole, rather than watching any specific indicator.

"We have to not only watch the numbers... but also the trajectory," he said, illustrating his point with a reference to the number of ICU cases.

"The number may be 50, or whatever it is, in a few weeks' time. But if the trajectory is going up sharply, then it is a warning sign that in the coming weeks, we may see many more ICU cases."

Added Mr Wong: "Our ICU numbers are still low now... but we must not be complacent and assume this will automatically remain so over the coming weeks."

The ministers were also asked for their assessment of how ready the public is to deal with uncertainty in the coming weeks, given that many saw the easing of phase two (heightened alert) measures as the "light at the end of the tunnel".

Mr Wong acknowledged that there is fatigue in the general population, but pointed out that many remain concerned over the health and safety of their loved ones.

He urged people to continue complying with safe management measures and start a new habit of getting tested regularly - whether in the workplace or at home.

On the Government's part, it must have a clear plan and explain it to people, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said. This includes being honest when things do not go as anticipated.

"As for the people's part, there will always be different views, different expectations, he said.

"But at the end of the day, over and over again, the people of Singapore always demonstrate that we will rise to the challenge."

In his closing remarks, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong stressed that the Government does not take Singaporeans' support for granted.

Singapore has come this far because of the trust between its people and government, he said.

"We are very appreciative that we have been able to come so far because of the trust between the people and the Government, and because of the support that people have for our various measures."

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