Covid-19: Phase 3 reopening of Singapore expected to be calibrated, cautious, say experts

Gradual changes a good approach, they say, warning against full reopening too quickly

Phase two reopening of the Singapore economy came into force on June 19, which, among other things, allows most businesses and social activities to resume, with safeguards in place.
Phase two reopening of the Singapore economy came into force on June 19, which, among other things, allows most businesses and social activities to resume, with safeguards in place.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Singaporeans can expect to move into phase three reopening in a calibrated and cautious manner, in the same way restrictions are being eased in the different stages of the current phase two, experts told The Straits Times.

But they see the blurred boundaries between the two phases as a good approach.

Associate Professor Josip Car, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, said this lack of a clear-cut difference shows effective policymaking in action, as changes are more likely to be accepted when introduced incrementally and gradually, helping to ensure that the public understands the measures and remains calm.

Pandemic response planning goes beyond just a "headline name", Prof Car said.

"There is a lot of effort given to detail about the kind of measures put in place between the phases, but more importantly, it is also about the wider strategies to achieve the best outcomes."

Phase two reopening of the Singapore economy came into force on June 19, which, among other things, allows most businesses and social activities to resume, with safeguards in place.

WHAT PHASE THREE COULD BE

With further easing of restrictions in the past few weeks, such as doubling the number of people at weddings and the lifting of border restrictions to visitors from Australia - excluding Victoria state - and Vietnam, many have wondered if Singapore has unofficially entered phase three.

Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, however, cautioned that it would be "silly" to give each of these incremental changes a name, asserting that Singaporeans cannot expect to be back to normal entirely until mass vaccination begins.

"Instead, we are calling the big overall phases as one, two and three, like signposts that we have reached major staging points in our journey. Careful relaxation is necessary as countries that have rushed into reopening are entering second waves, and either starting localised lockdowns, in the case of Spain and Britain, or full national lockdowns, like Israel," he said.

Tempering public expectations, Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that one should not anticipate a significant relaxing of measures in phase three, and expect the entire suite of activities that were previously barred to return.

Rather, phase three is a state in which Singapore will remain with a certain degree of precautions to allow economic and social activities to carry on.

 
 

"We always have to consider the impact of a possible super-spreader event, and whether the allowed activities will substantially amplify this spread. This is the lens I hope we will use to determine Singapore's stable state," Prof Teo cautioned.

But he remains optimistic about travel, and is for unrestricted travel to resume, especially to places where the Covid-19 situation is very similar to or better than Singapore's.

"Non-exhaustive examples include New Zealand, Brunei, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. Of course, this list cannot be static and needs to be regularly reviewed and updated," he said.

With much still unknown about the coronavirus, phase three would also depend on the extent of scientific and medical advances, when the time for further reopening comes.

 
 

Prof Car explained: "As more businesses adapt and create new ways of operating, workers adapt to new modes of working, research is ramped up and new technologies evolve to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat the disease... we will then know what our new normal - or phase three - would look like."

He called for society to be resilient and nimble, to be able to transform and adapt, depending on the threats, therapeutics and knowledge that are available at that time, citing as an example, the relaxation on young children wearing masks last month following a better understanding of the virus.

Professor Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said that policy decisions guiding the nature of phase three should take into consideration science and medicine, and the bigger picture.

"There has to be a balance between health risks and that of social isolation versus the benefits of preventing transmission of infection. Personally, I think a lot of people would like larger family gatherings to be allowed, and the risks could be mitigated with effective contact tracing," Prof Tambyah said.

 
 

As part of the latest round of pandemic restrictions easing, live music during worship services will resume, which Prof Tambyah said would also help to stress test the system.

"If these go off well, then perhaps that can be expanded to concerts and the theatre. Cinemas and religious worship services have opened to progressively larger crowds without any problems reported, so hopefully the same will be extended to concerts, theatres and sporting events."

RETURN OF NIGHTLIFE?

But scenes of late-night merrymaking at nightclubs, pubs and bars will likely have to wait even after Singapore enters phase three, experts said.

Prof Teo said that since these activities take place in enclosed spaces, crowded settings and with exposure to close contacts for a long duration, they are considered very high risk and should not be permitted regardless of the phases.

 
 

"What we saw in New Zealand, Victoria state in Australia, Hong Kong and Vietnam serve as stark reminders that, even when there are extended periods of zero community cases, the situation can deteriorate rapidly within a couple of weeks... How rapid this deterioration is really depends on the range of activities that are allowed," Prof Teo cautioned.

"I do think if nightlife activities resume, very careful evaluation of the safe management procedures must be in place, especially to ensure that contact tracing can happen seamlessly, and to properly enforce the execution of these measures."

DORSCON ORANGE

Prof Teo noted that Singapore has been in Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) Orange since Feb 7, although the current rules and regulations are much more nuanced, with different activities for different levels of risk.

 
 

He stressed the importance of clear communication to inform individuals on what they need to do to protect themselves and the community.

Prof Cook suggested that the Dorscon framework would also likely have to be updated and reassessed after the pandemic has subsided as there seems to be "a mismatch between the risks and responses envisioned in the Dorscon framework and what actually happened."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2020, with the headline 'Phase three expected to be calibrated, cautious, say experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe