SINGAPORE - A zero-Covid-19 strategy is no longer feasible given how infectious the Delta variant is, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he set out the country's situation and what has changed.
With vaccinations, the virus has become a mild, treatable disease for most, he added, urging people to go about their daily activities, taking necessary precautions and complying with safe management measures.
Key to this shift is updating mindsets to respect the virus but not be paralysed by fear, Mr Lee said in an address to the nation on Saturday (Oct 9).
Acknowledging Singaporeans' anxieties, Mr Lee said many have found it difficult to keep up with new policies and changes to measures. He said he understood their concerns and frustrations.
At the start of the outbreak last year, the nation was dealing with an unknown disease and adjusted its strategy as the authorities learned more about the virus, he said.
"Our original approach was to do our utmost to prevent Singaporeans from being exposed to Covid-19. We tightened safe management measures (SMMs) as much as necessary, to bring cases down to a very low level. We judged this the best way to minimise serious illness and deaths," he said, adding that zero-Covid-19 was the right strategy then and helped avert the huge loss of lives that many countries saw.
"Our population was not yet vaccinated, people had little or no immunity against Covid-19. The consequences of catching the virus were serious. But because the virus was not so infectious then, our measures could work to break the chain of transmission. The strategy succeeded."
But the emergence of the Delta variant has put Singapore in a changed situation, he said. This variant is highly infectious and has spread all over the world, and even with the whole population vaccinated, Singapore will not be able to stamp it out through lockdowns and safe management measures.
Almost every country has accepted this reality, he added.
"Furthermore, even if we manage to keep Covid-19 cases down through stringent SMMs, the virus will spread swiftly again as soon as we ease up. This is especially true in Singapore, precisely because of our 'zero Covid' strategy. "
Mr Lee pointed out that the majority of Singaporeans have never experienced an infection and are Covid-19-naive. This means the natural population immunity is low - even if people have been vaccinated, they are still at some risk of getting infected.
This is why Singaporeans must be prepared to see quite many Covid-19 cases for some time to come, he said.
Yet Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely, he added, as this would be very costly.
Singaporeans would be unable to resume their lives, participate in social activities, open the borders and revive the economy.
"Each time we tighten up, businesses are further disrupted, workers lose jobs, children are deprived of a proper childhood and school life.
"Families are separated for even longer, especially families with loved ones overseas, and extended families who have not been able to come together.
"All these cause psychological and emotional strain, and mental fatigue for Singaporeans and everyone else here with us, including our migrant workers."
He acknowledged that living with Covid-19 has not been a smooth and easy journey.
When Singapore reached an 80 per cent vaccination rate in August, it eased the heightened alert restrictions with the expectation that cases would go up as more people resumed activities and interacted with one another.
But the numbers went up more sharply than anticipated because of how infectious the Delta variant was, he said.
While the healthcare system was initially able to cope, there were worries that it would come under significant strain. It has, and so have medical personnel here, he added.
"As total cases grow exponentially, the number of serious cases will also grow in step. And when the number of cases grows very large, even 2 per cent of a very large number will translate to many patients needing hospital and ICU (intensive care unit) beds. Our healthcare system would rapidly be overwhelmed.
"That is why last month we tightened up our restrictions. It was to slow down the growth in cases, so that we can ease the burden on our healthcare workers and stabilise our healthcare system."
Mr Lee added that the authorities are using this time to further expand healthcare capacity and strengthen its case management, so as to better identify Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms who can recover at home, make sure they can care properly for those who fall seriously, as well as continue to attend to the many non-Covid-19 patients who also have urgent medical needs.
Singapore is now almost two weeks into the month-long stabilisation phase, which saw tighter restrictions put in place from Sept 27 to Oct 24 to slow the community spread of Covid-19 and buy time for the healthcare system and new protocols, such as the home recovery scheme, to stabilise.
Dining in and social gatherings were capped once more at two people, and working from home was made the default arrangement.
The Prime Minister noted that Singapore has one of the lowest Covid-19 death rates in the world - and with Singaporeans' trust and cooperation, also one of the highest vaccination rates at almost 85 per cent of the population.
This has greatly enhanced Singaporeans' protection against the virus, he said.
The vast majority of local cases - more than 98 per cent - have mild or no symptoms. Only 2 per cent or less developed more serious illness, and of these, 0.2 per cent - or just two out of every thousand cases - died or needed ICU treatment.
"In other words, with vaccination, Covid-19 is no longer a dangerous disease for most of us."
He called for a fundamental updating of mindsets. Singaporeans should respect Covid-19, but must not be paralysed by fear, he said.
"Let us go about our daily activities as normally as possible, taking necessary precautions and complying with SMMs. With vaccinations, Covid-19 has become a treatable, mild disease for most of us. This is especially if you are young, or even if you are not so young but fully vaccinated."