SINGAPORE - The next relaxation of Covid-19 measures is expected on July 12, as part of a three-step plan for the country's further reopening that could potentially see the Republic transitioning to a new normal, as well as leisure travel returning by the end of the year.
"Come July 12, we are looking at opening up to (allow) more people dining together, and whether there are other openings that we can consider," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told The Straits Times' senior health correspondent Salma Khalik in an exclusive interview on Thursday (July 1).
He added that this relaxation of measures is less dependent on vaccination rates, and more on whether Covid-19 clusters are under control.
The next milestone for further easing will be in the second half of July, when half of the population would have been fully vaccinated, followed by National Day, when two-thirds of residents would have been inoculated, he added.
"Hopefully we can mark (the milestone) with the National Day Parade as another step of opening, before we progress to the endemic Covid-19 stage. You want the transition to be a... step-by-step one, where you progressively move towards it, as opposed to a sudden change," said the minister, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.
Mr Ong said he also shares Singaporeans' aspirations for leisure travel to resume by the end of the year. Possible destinations would be countries with high vaccination rates, and which have seen downward trends in their infection rates.
These include most countries in the European Union, as well as the United States.
"Once a place's (Covid-19) infection rate is going down, vaccinations are going up and you go below, say, two or three infections per 100,000 (people), we should start monitoring those countries seriously," he said.
Asked if end-August or early September would be a good time to switch gears to the new normal - given that all who want to and are eligible for the jab would have been inoculated - Mr Ong said this was a realistic timeframe, based on the country's vaccine supplies.
"What you would see is not a big-bang opening end of August or September, but a progressive one," he added.
The task force announced on June 24 that Singapore will transition to a new normal where Covid-19 will be managed like other endemic diseases.
Asked if this is a deviation from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech in May, when he spoke of ramping up vaccinations, contact tracing and testing, Mr Ong clarified that this was not the case.
The key message of PM Lee's speech is that vaccination is the key to helping Singapore transition to the new normal, he said.
"We are in this transition phase while we vaccinate more of our population... It may take a month or two before we arrive at a percentage that we are more comfortable with, that gives us confidence to open up more. In the meantime, testing remains very important," said Mr Ong.
He noted that 37 per cent of the population are now fully vaccinated, with 57 per cent to 58 per cent partially vaccinated.
There are also other key considerations in transitioning to living with endemic Covid-19, though the decision had been made based on science, he added.
After an extended period of restrictions, fatigue has set in, and there is a certain sense of battle weariness among people.
"You cannot expect people to live like that - restricting themselves, not meeting friends, not being able to travel," he said, noting that some have been apart from families, and that some workers have not been allowed to enter the country.
There are also other major considerations, such as the trajectory of the pandemic, as well as the development of the vaccines and treatments Singapore now has at its disposal that could make living with endemic Covid-19 a possibility.
While scientists estimate that a vaccination rate of at least 80 per cent is required for the population to gain herd immunity against the Delta variant, Mr Ong said that people can still live with an endemic Covid-19 if this is not achieved.
"People will still get infected, but they are fine. And so you make Covid-19 more like influenza, you can't make Covid-19 like measles, for example, where you try to eradicate it."
But masks will be among the last of measures that will be reviewed, Mr Ong said, noting that Israel has recently reintroduced a requirement to wear masks indoors amid a rise in coronavirus cases, just days after it lifted the measure.
"Masks, to me, are a very important non-pharmaceutical intervention, and may well be one of the last things we want to consider removing," he said. Even if mask-wearing requirements are removed, this will perhaps be just for safer outdoor environments, such as parks, he said.
"In terms of risk and reward, it is one of the most sensible things to do."
Read more from ST's exclusive interview with Health Minister Ong Ye Kung:
- Leisure travel may resume year end
- Getting Covid-19 could soon mean an MC, isolation and self tests
- Masks to remain key even in new normal
- Perks for those vaccinated not meant to be discriminatory
- 'Sleep, exercise, work, eat': Ong Ye Kung on life amid Covid-19
- Vaccination rate needed to keep Singapore safe from Covid-19