Singapore tracking Omicron Covid-19 variant closely, may be forced to take steps back: PM Lee

PM Lee said that Singapore must be mentally prepared for "more bumps along the way" as it deals with an evolving virus. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Singapore is watching the new coronavirus variant Omicron closely and may be forced to roll back the easing up of safety measures as it moves forward to tackle the disease, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Nov 28).

But Mr Lee said he is confident the country will be able to live with the virus, and held up how its people have made a lot of progress in dealing with the disease over the past two years.

In his first public comments about Omicron, Mr Lee, who was speaking at the People's Action Party (PAP) convention on Sunday, said that Singapore must be mentally prepared for "more bumps along the way" as it deals with an evolving virus.

"We are tracking this very closely. We are not sure yet, but we may well be forced to take a few steps back again, before we can take more steps forward," he said.

"But despite all this, I am confident that, eventually, we will find our way to living with the virus and safely resume all the things we love to do.

"We are making all this effort because we want to get there safely, with as few casualties along the way," he added.

Omicron, which was dubbed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday, is a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus strain, and Singapore and other countries have in recent days restricted travel from southern Africa, where the strain was first detected.

Singapore has largely managed to keep its Covid-19 situation under control through a series of safety measures that the Government tightens to respond to the spread of the virus.

Last week, the Government relaxed curbs on dining out, household visits and some social activities, after nearly two months of stabilisation measures. These measures were introduced on Sept 27 following a surge in Covid-19 cases, and were intended to last a month but were extended as the country's healthcare system remained at risk of being overwhelmed.

Singapore had imposed a circuit breaker from April 7 to June 1 last year to stem the initial spread of the disease, where people were not allowed to have social gatherings or dine out.

Mr Lee acknowledged that the fight against Covid-19 has been tough on Singapore and its people. He said: "It has been a long journey with many twists and turns. The virus has surprised us over and over again. Repeatedly we have had to adapt our response, pick ourselves up and then press on."

On Saturday, the Ministry of Health reported 1,761 new cases of the disease, as well as a weekly infection growth rate of 0.75.

This was the 15th consecutive day the growth rate is below one. The number refers to the ratio of community cases in the past week over the week before, and a weekly infection growth rate that is consistently below one shows the number of new weekly Covid-19 cases is falling.

Omicron was first identified in Gauteng, a province of South Africa, and the WHO was alerted last Wednesday. It was declared a variant of concern because of the large number of mutations detected in its spike protein, which may cause an increased risk of reinfection, among other negative effects. The spike protein is what the coronavirus uses to begin infecting human cells.

Mr Lee on Sunday thanked healthcare and front-line workers, as well as PAP party activists, for working to keep Singapore safe.

He noted how some activists have reached out to help residents in need by physically taking care of them, distributing support packs to people recovering at home alone, or attending to the mental well-being of others.

"These last two years have tested not just our healthcare response, but also our social bonds and our political will," he said.

"I am grateful that in a crunch, Singaporeans have stayed united, worked closely with the Government and come together to support one another."

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