Perks for those who get Covid-19 jabs may nudge the undecided

Travel concessions will be given to fully vaccinated travellers going overseas or returning to Singapore.
Travel concessions will be given to fully vaccinated travellers going overseas or returning to Singapore.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - As Singapore accelerates its vaccination drive, more perks are being dangled for people who get vaccinated, a move that could persuade the undecided to take the jab.

The lure of easier travel, for instance, was a factor in spurring Ms Eliza Xue to change her mind about not getting shots for herself and her children, aged 17 and 19. The housewife, 53, accompanies her husband when he travels to Malaysia once every two to three months for business.

"Initially, I wanted to wait as I read and heard about some people having side effects. It wasn't an easy decision," she told Insight.

There could be more people thinking the same way soon, with the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 announcing on Thursday that travel concessions will be given to fully vaccinated travellers going overseas or returning to Singapore.

While details have yet to be fully ironed out, the task force did provide some examples of such perks, such as overseas travel allowed without stay-home notice, as well as non-travel-related ones like vaccinated people being allowed to gather in larger groups.

Companies like Shake Shack are also getting in on the action to support the vaccination campaign. The restaurant will offer vaccinated customers free fries with every burger purchase from July 1 to 15.

But experts are ambivalent about too many incentives being dished out, given how there are still many in the queue who want to be vaccinated but have yet to reach their turn.

Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: "It would be inequitable at this point to give many special privileges, but at some point, after we've offered everyone the vaccine, we should consider relaxing some measures preferentially.

"Perhaps mask-wearing might no longer be compulsory for those who have been vaccinated, or future quarantine rules might be less onerous," he said.

Right now, those who are fully vaccinated are already exempt from pre-event testing for events like live performances and wedding solemnisations.

But with much of the population yet to be vaccinated, other safe management measures can be expected to continue, said Assistant Professor Hannah Clapham, an epidemiologist and mathematical modeller at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

"There will be a constant recalibration of how much of these other measures are needed as more and more people get vaccinated," she said.

Incentives aside, Professor Dale Fisher, a senior infectious diseases consultant at the National University Hospital (NUH), noted that the biggest perk of vaccination should simply be that the person is less likely to get seriously ill or die of Covid-19. "You are also less likely to infect those around you because you are less likely to get infected with even the mild form of the disease," he said.

Prof Fisher strongly discouraged travelling without being vaccinated, saying it is risky to be sick in a foreign country where one is unsure about the healthcare standards or costs of treatment.

Some vaccinated people Insight spoke to said they felt more assured of their health after receiving their shots.

A 23-year-old public servant who wanted to be known only as Ms Tan described vaccination as the stepping stone allowing her to resume all the fun activities she loves.

"I really miss travelling and just being able to hang out with my friends without worrying so much about the restrictions," she said, adding that the long-drawn pandemic has taken a toll on everyone's mental health.

Ms Tan, who will receive her second jab late next month, hopes to volunteer for the #igotmyshot campaign, and be involved in opportunities such as going to homes to encourage senior citizens to get vaccinated and assist them with the sign-up process.

High vaccination rates remain the long-term and sustainable solution for Singapore, experts also said.

Vaccination will reduce the strain on the healthcare system, given that those who have received the shots will likely suffer only a milder form of the disease and resources can be directed to support the few who will suffer from severe complications, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

He noted that when Covid-19 eventually becomes endemic, hospital use due to Covid-19 complications will be monitored over daily case counts. The need for contact tracing operations will also no longer be necessary.

"But for that to happen, the vaccines used must be safe and efficacious, robust against new emerging variants, and Singapore needs to continue having a steady and reliable supply in the likely event of booster shots being a necessity."

A wedding guest undergoing a Covid-19 swab test as part of pre-event testing at Four Points by Sheraton Singapore hotel last month. Those who are fully vaccinated are exempt from pre-event testing for events like live performances and wedding solemnisations. PHOTO: ST FILE

So far, Singapore's vaccination drive has made good progress, with over 50 per cent of the local population having received at least a dose, and some 80,000 vaccine doses to be administered daily from today.

But not everyone remains convinced that a vaccine is effective.

Ms Xue added that she had been banned from a group of parents opposing vaccinations for their children on messaging platform Telegram. Some of them appeared to subscribe to the belief that vaccinated people would have magnets embedded inside them and would face death after three to five years, she said.

She was banned from the group for suggesting that masks and circuit breakers were necessary.

Experts have attributed possible reasons to vaccine hesitancy - such as a desire to wait before trying something new, a lack of a sense of urgency to be vaccinated, as well as a preference by some for non-mRNA vaccines like Sinovac's.

Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, both of which use mRNA technology, are part of Singapore's national vaccination campaign.

Other approved vaccines under the Special Access Route include those by Sinovac, Johnson & Johnson, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sinopharm, and are made available through the private healthcare sector.