SINGAPORE - Singapore will review its Covid-19 restrictions in early August, and ease some measures if virus clusters are under control and hospitalisation rates remain low.
But any loosened restrictions will be extended only to vaccinated individuals, who are "much better protected against the effects of the virus", Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday (July 26).
"This means that if you want to attend a large event or a religious service involving more than 100 persons, you have to be fully vaccinated," he told the House in a ministerial statement that gave an overview of the country's next steps in its pandemic response.
"If you want to go out to dine in a restaurant or work out in a gym, you have to be fully vaccinated," he added.
Mr Wong said Singapore will be able to further ease restrictions around September, when about 80 per cent of the population are expected to have got the full two doses of the vaccine. This will include allowing fully vaccinated people to travel to areas where the Covid-19 situation is under control without serving the 14-day stay home notice (SHN) in a hotel.
He noted that by early August - the mid-point of the phase two (heightened alert) period - around two-thirds of Singapore's population would have received the full two doses and some three-quarters of seniors aged 70 and above would also have been vaccinated.
The hope is that come early September, about 80 per cent of seniors aged 70 and up would be fully vaccinated, added Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.
Singapore will then allow larger groups to gather, especially if all are fully vaccinated. It will also begin to reopen its borders for travel, especially for vaccinated people.
"We will start by establishing travel corridors with countries or regions that have managed Covid-19 well, and where the infection is similarly under control," he said.
Instead of serving the 14-day SHN in a hotel, fully vaccinated people who travel to these areas will instead likely undergo a rigorous testing regime or serve a shorter seven-day SHN at home, depending on the risk level of the place they visit.
However, unvaccinated individuals will be subject to the prevailing requirements.
Looking further beyond, Singapore will continue with a series of "progressive easings", the minister said.
As it does so, the country must expect Covid-19 cases to rise - partly because there are still "cryptic" cases being transmitted in the community, he noted.
Imported cases will also rise as Singapore opens its borders, with "infected persons slipping through from time to time".
"But at that stage... our main focus will no longer be on daily case numbers, because the vast majority by then would have been vaccinated, and even if they catch the virus, they are much less likely to become very ill," Mr Wong said.
"Instead, our focus will be on the much smaller number of infected persons who need supplementary oxygen or require intensive care."
At each stage of easing, Singapore will monitor Covid-19 patients' health outcomes - especially hospitalisation rates and intensive care unit usage.
These must be deemed "acceptable and stable" before the country moves to the next step, Mr Wong said. It will have to slow down or even pull back on reopening should these numbers shoot up.
The minister added that Singapore must be prepared for new variants that may be more transmissible or lethal to emerge.
"We will find solutions to these variants, especially through booster shots or updated vaccines, which we may need to roll out nationwide," he said. "But we must be prepared that the new variants can lead to more severe outbreaks, and may well force us to introduce restrictions again from time to time."
In his statement, Mr Wong also explained why the task force "made the difficult decision" to return to phase two (heightened alert) - a move that has drawn criticism from some quarters.
The stricter rules that scale back activities help slow down transmission and give the country time to push vaccination rates up further, protecting seniors, he said.
The large clusters that formed in recent weeks show how easy it is for the Delta variant to spread and potentially overwhelm Singapore's hospital system, Mr Wong added.
He pointed out that vaccinated individuals may experience very mild symptoms when infected, inadvertently becoming asymptomatic carriers.
"By the time the cases pop up, days or even weeks would have passed and the infection would have spread to many people," he said.
Facing a heightened risk of widespread community transmission before enough people attained adequate vaccine protection, Singapore thus decided to tighten the rules.
At present, the proportion of people who are fully vaccinated is still less than 50 per cent, he said.
"We are especially worried about our seniors, because there are still over 200,000 seniors aged 60 and above who are not fully vaccinated."
In reopening, the vaccination of seniors is key, Mr Wong added.
"So I make a special plea to all who remain unvaccinated or have not registered to be vaccinated, especially our parents and grandparents: Please come forward," he said.
In a separate statement, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung observed that Singaporeans' thoughts on living with Covid-19 fall into two broad categories.
Younger, vaccinated individuals feel that those who are vaccinated should be allowed to enjoy more social activities but, on the other hand, a sizeable segment of older Singaporeans who have yet to be vaccinated remains.
Differentiated measures for vaccinated persons are necessary for public health reasons, especially to protect the unvaccinated, he said.
Mr Ong pointed out that Singapore is one of the few countries to have come through the last 20 months with very few fatalities, and is unique even among countries and regions which have access to vaccines.
Some countries - such as the United States and United Kingdom - went through major episodes of widespread transmission, while others - such as Australia and New Zealand - kept the pandemic under control but are now finding it difficult to get their people vaccinated.
"This will make us perhaps the only country in the world, which has not suffered a collapse of our hospitals nor a high death toll, and at the same time achieved a very high vaccination rate in our population," he said.
"This uniqueness is due to the unity of our people, the trust amongst them, and between the people and Government."
Key points in the next steps in Singapore's pandemic response
• Greater use of community care facilities rather than hospitals
• Shorter stays in hospitals and community care facilities
• Home quarantine instead of staying at government facilities
• All households to get DIY Covid-19 test kits
• Vaccinated individuals travelling to safe countries could serve a shorter seven-day SHN at home