Phase three of the nation's reopening in the wake of Covid-19 could last a year or more, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament yesterday.
Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) had asked about phase three, including what factors are taken into account when deciding on the maximum number of people allowed for various events, what safeguards will be put in place when activities resume on a larger scale, and what might happen if cases were to surge again.
Mr Gan replied that phase three - which Singapore could move into by the year end if the virus remains under control here - would not be a return to pre-Covid-19 days. It will last until the rest of the world has the virus under tight control or when effective treatments or vaccines are widely available.
Mr Gan said group size limits depend on factors such as how frequently an activity takes place, what potential risks it has, and whether additional safety measures can be implemented to mitigate such risks.
Pointing to the large clusters of Covid-19 cases that had formed during events like the Safra Jurong dinner and the Mei Hwan Drive Chinese New Year gathering, Mr Gan said: "The probability of transmission tends to be higher in social settings... (as) it is natural to lower our guard when we are among family and friends."
He noted that having meals in a group raises the risk of transmission as masks are removed while eating and drinking.
Additionally, many people go out for meals almost every day with different groups, further multiplying the risk.
The authorities are currently considering increasing group size limits from five to eight in phase three.
Mr Gan said that before the pandemic, banquet tables used to have a capacity of about 10 people - so the new limit of eight is the maximum that such tables can take while allowing for additional safe distancing.
He noted that gatherings of any size pose a risk of Covid-19 transmission, but at the same time, it is "not tenable nor desirable" to ban social gatherings for a long period of time.
Allowing gatherings of up to eight in phase three will strike a balance between maintaining safe distance and permitting larger groups to meet, he said.
He added that larger group sizes can be allowed in settings where safe management measures can be put in place. These include weddings, which are still considered high-risk and have resulted in clusters across the world.
Mr Gan noted that there have been requests to raise the cap on the number of wedding participants. So additional measures have already been put in place, including keeping guests from mingling beyond groups of five at their tables, and ensuring they use SafeEntry and TraceTogether.
Testing and contact tracing are the two keys to allowing more activities to resume, the minister said.
On testing, he said pre-event testing is being piloted to allow higher-risk activities such as weddings to scale up safely, by reducing the chance of a Covid-19 case being present at the event.
On contact tracing, Mr Gan said the authorities are progressively rolling out TraceTogether-only SafeEntry to ensure that all those who are visiting places where they are likely to be in contact with many others for prolonged periods, or where human traffic is high, have the TraceTogether app or token. This will help speed up contact tracing efforts and provide anyone who becomes infected with early medical care.
"Our objective in phase three is to reach a steady state of permitted economic and social activities until an effective vaccine or treatment is widely available," Mr Gan said.
He added: "Should there be a spike in cases, we need to respond swiftly and decisively. We cannot rule out the need to reimpose measures or introduce new measures in order to keep the virus under control."