News analysis

Stricter Covid-19 curbs in Singapore: Is this another circuit breaker?

Long queues forming up at checkout counters at Fairprice Finest in Marine Parade, on May 14, 2021.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When news broke that Singapore was further tightening rules from Sunday (May 16) to limit social gatherings to just two people, halt all dining in at eateries and get employees to work from home, memories of the circuit breaker (CB) period last year came flooding back.

Never mind that most schools remain open and you can still watch a movie or attend a concert, though audiences will be smaller.

Some people still decided it was time to rush to the stores to stock up on groceries and household goods for the phase which some have dubbed mini-CB and CB-lite.

The new measures have come amid Singapore's largest active cluster at Changi Airport growing to 59 cases and an increase in unlinked Covid-19 cases in the community. The second-biggest cluster at Tan Tock Seng Hospital has 44 cases. The Republic is experiencing its worst spate of locally transmitted Covid-19 cases in close to a year, and mass testing is ongoing.

But it seems that the fear of being stuck at home with no toilet paper or familiar food items is more immediate than being infected with the virus.

In April last year, Singapore announced a "major circuit breaker" to break the chain of Covid-19 transmission and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed after cases surged, clusters formed at migrant workers' dormitories and a cluster was discovered at a nursing home.

People could go out only for essential services, with most working from home. The Government halted dining in at eateries, closed recreation venues and attractions, and moved schools to full home-based learning.

All social gatherings with people not within the same household had to stop, and people were asked to exercise alone or with those they lived with.

The circuit breaker exacted a heavy toll on the economy and people. The virus was new and spreading fast, there were no known treatments or vaccines, and tests were still being developed.

Today, all that has changed, but as the recent surge in cases has shown, human behaviour plays a pivotal role in the battle against the virus.

Vaccines are but one strategy, as public health measures still need to be adhered to. Singapore cannot afford to shut out the rest of the world for long. As cases rise and clusters form, the Government will ring-fence them quickly.

Last year, Singapore locked down migrant workers' dormitories to prevent the spread of the virus. This year, after clusters formed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and Changi Airport, the Government moved to conduct aggressive testing, contact tracing and deep cleaning, among other things. The hospital also ceased to take in new patients, while a two-week closure of Jewel and restricted access to Terminals 1, 2 and 3 from Thursday was announced.

Social gatherings were whittled down from groups of eight to five, and now to two. Meanwhile, indoor gyms and fitness studios had to close.

Tests done show that both the TTSH and Changi Airport clusters are associated with the coronavirus variant first detected in India that now accounts for half of the world's Covid-19 cases and 30 per cent of the deaths caused by the disease, according to the World Health Organisation.

The "big worry now" is the onward community transmission coming out of the commercial areas of Terminal 3, said Mr Ong Ye Kung, who assumes the role of Health Minister today and is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

Mr Lawrence Wong, who assumes the role of Finance Minister today and who is also a co-chair of the task force, has said that the new variants appear to be more infectious and form larger clusters.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a Facebook post, said that the new clusters and unlinked community cases in the past fortnight are "very worrying". "Please stay at home as far as possible, go out only for essential tasks and follow government advisories," he wrote.

But some people are more lax now when it comes to social distancing, mask wearing and personal hygiene practices.

They sit closer to one another in cafes and small eateries, and enter lifts when there are already several people inside. The free hand sanitiser at lift lobbies and shops is now often ignored.

Yes, we have TraceTogether, increased testing capability and vaccinated people among us.

But vaccination does not remove the risk of infection, though it can prevent people from becoming severely ill with Covid-19.

Guarding against the coronavirus may remain a part of life for a long time, with the virus mutating as it spreads. So, we will have to adapt, be it by taking booster shots if needed or doing more tests.

As PM Lee said, if we all play our part and look out for one another, we will succeed in stemming the transmission of the virus, just like we did last year.

Singapore is at a critical point in this latest round of the battle against Covid-19. By now, surely, we all know what we must do.