SINGAPORE - In reopening and endeavouring to resume a way of life that is as close as possible to pre-pandemic days, Singapore must find its own path forward based on its own circumstances, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.
"We have good vaccination outcomes but we still want them to be better, especially among our seniors, and we do not want to take the risk of having huge outbreaks that will overwhelm our hospital system," he told a forum at the Nanyang Technological University on Tuesday (Aug 24).
"That's why we are taking a step-by-step approach in opening up and controlling the pace of opening."
In his speech, Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, outlined two opposing views on the pace and extent of Singapore's reopening.
On the one hand, one group sees Singapore as moving too slowly when, given its high vaccination rates, it should be opening up more aggressively like in the United States, Britain and other European countries.
The other camp thinks Singapore is moving too fast, and with multiple community cases daily, it would be safer to adopt more stringent restrictions - as countries like China and New Zealand have done - and try to bring the number of cases down to zero or near-zero before opening up.
Mr Wong said such an approach, involving perpetual lockdowns and isolation from the world, was not feasible.
"It will not be possible to eradicate the virus... We probably have to live with Covid-19 for a long time," he said. "So we have to learn to live with the virus - like how we live with other infectious diseases, including influenza and chickenpox."
Being one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world - with 78 per cent of the population fully vaccinated as at Monday - gives Singapore the confidence, he said, to take steps to reopen safely.
"Vaccinated persons are less likely to fall sick when they catch the virus. So even if daily infections were to rise, we should be able to keep the number of severely ill or ICU (intensive care unit) cases at an acceptable and stable level."
At the same time, Singapore does not want to open up with a "big bang" like what many Western countries have done, said Mr Wong, noting that this may easily cause hospital cases to shoot up. He cited Britain, where more than 25 per cent of the population have been infected, but the vast majority of the population are vaccinated - including up to 95 per cent of seniors above 70 years old.
"Quite unlike us, they have managed to cover a very high proportion of their vulnerable seniors," he noted. As at Monday, 82 per cent of seniors above 70 in Singapore have been fully vaccinated.
Said Mr Wong of Britain: "Because they already have much higher levels of underlying immunity and protection, many of these countries are more prepared to open up fully... They say they have a 'Freedom Day', and they are prepared to let the virus run its course through their population."
But Singapore is in a different position: It is one of the few countries that has been able to manage the outbreak while keeping its hospital system intact and maintaining a low death toll.
This remains the overriding objective, said Mr Wong: "To get to the end of this pandemic with as little death and damage as possible, even as we progressively resume most of our normal lives."