SINGAPORE - More than 12,000 travellers from higher-risk countries or regions - mostly Singapore citizens and permanent residents - have entered Singapore without pre-departure tests from Nov 18 to Dec 27, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday (Jan 4).
So far, around 100 - or 0.85 per cent of them - have tested positive for Covid-19, and none of these cases has resulted in local transmission, said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.
Though Singapore has required travellers from such higher-risk places to take a pre-departure test since Nov 18, this is not required of citizens and permanent residents, Mr Wong said in a ministerial statement.
"We do not want to place additional barriers for them to return home if they have urgent need to do so," he said.
As paediatric testing services may not be so easily available in some countries, those aged six and below are also exempted from such tests, he added.
"But through the stay-home notice (SHN), we ensure that community transmission risks for these travellers are minimised, even in the absence of a pre-departure test," said Mr Wong, addressing a question from Workers' Party MP Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) on how the Government manages the risk of incoming arrivals, particularly for those aged six and below.
Managing the global situation
Mr Wong noted that while Singapore has been able to bring things under control and enter into phase three of the economy's reopening on Dec 28, the country is still not out of the woods yet.
"We cannot afford to relax and let our guard down... The global situation continues to escalate rapidly."
He noted that Covid-19 cases continue to climb in many countries, including in places which had previously established good control over the virus. In Singapore, there have been two family clusters due to marine workers who had been infected on board ships and spread the virus to their family members.
"It it is a sobering reminder of how easily new infection clusters can break out," said Mr Wong, who stressed that Singapore must continue to stay alert.
"The emergence of new viral strains that may be more infectious, such as the B117 variant, is very worrying," he said, adding that he shares the concerns about the new virus strain raised by Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) and Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas).
Where necessary and practical, Singapore will tighten border restrictions to limit importation risk, he said. For instance, additional testing requirements have been introduced for travellers from Britain and South Africa, where the new strain has been circulating.
The testing regime and safe management measures for those working in the aviation and maritime sectors have also been tightened.
Air crew who have layovers in higher-risk countries, for example, are being tested more frequently after they return to Singapore. They are also required to self-isolate for a few days.
Singapore is also conducting a one-time sweep to test all marine workers, and increasing the frequency of testing for marine workers going on board vessels.
"This is not the first time we have picked up new strains of the virus. Nor will it be the last. The fact is that the virus has always been mutating, and will continue to do so. Other new strains will continue to emerge.
"We do not know what their cumulative effects will be like. So we will have to constantly monitor the latest developments around the world, review the data and evidence, and update our measures accordingly."
Taking calculated risks in border management
Mr Wong also noted that Singapore takes a calculated risk-based approach in how it manages its borders.
"With the virus raging around the world, we clearly cannot afford to freely open our borders at this time.
"But neither can we close ourselves completely from the world, and simply stop all flights or ships coming to Singapore."
Mr Wong added: "Trade and travel are our lifeblood. This is an existential issue for us because we do not have the luxury of a hinterland to depend on."
Special travel arrangements with certain countries and territories have been set up to facilitate essential business and official travel. The number of travellers on these schemes is controlled tightly, and travellers are also required to stick to a controlled itinerary and strictly limit interactions with the wider community.
For instance, about 500 travellers have arrived from China through the fast lane that was established between Singapore and six provinces and municipalities in China in June, Mr Wong said in response to the query by Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC).
Given China's success in containing the virus, Singapore has also lifted its border restrictions with China to allow short-term Chinese visitors to enter Singapore via the Air Travel Pass, since early November.
"In order to promote both Singapore's economic interests and our status as a global business and transportation hub, we will continue to negotiate and formulate travel arrangements with other like-minded countries or regions while ensuring that public health is not compromised," said Mr Wong.
For instance, a new travel lane announced in December - Connect @ Singapore - ensures that Covid-19 risks are managed by placing a "bubble wrap" around a limited number of officials and travellers on business or with high economic value coming to Singapore for short-term stays.
As it will not be practical for them to serve a 14-day quarantine, these travellers will only stay at dedicated facilities and will not be allowed into the community. They will also undergo regular testing and observe all prevailing safe management measures.
On a daily basis, a far larger number of travellers entering Singapore are returning Singaporeans, PRs and long-term pass holders. There are also new migrant workers entering Singapore, mostly construction workers and foreign domestic workers.
"We need them to build our homes and infrastructure, and to support the caregiving needs of our families," said Mr Wong.
The entry of returning residents and essential workers is allowed on a controlled basis, he added. Those who are from higher-risk countries have to serve a 14-day SHN at dedicated facilities, and will be tested at the end of their SHN. Travellers from countries with new virus variants will also serve their SHN at designated SHN hotels to further minimise the risks of spread.
"This system ensures that we are able to tightly ring-fence imported cases and minimise the risk of leakage into the community."