SINGAPORE - Singapore may enter phase three of its reopening by the end of this year, should community cases remain low as the country intensifies testing and contact tracing, said the multi-ministry task force handling Covid-19.
As part of phase three, the size of gatherings outside homes could be increased from five to eight people. Similarly, eight visitors could be allowed on home visits, allowing larger families to congregate.
In addition, capacity limits in venues such as museums, places of worship and wedding receptions may be increased, with multiple zones of 50 people permitted.
But to enter phase three, Singapore will have to keep its guard up and meet several key conditions, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said on Tuesday (Oct 20) as he laid out the country's road map to the final phase of its reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
First, Singaporeans will still have to stick to safe management measures, including small group sizes, safe distancing, and exercising social responsibility.
Next, testing will be carried out on a larger scale to allow more activities to resume. For starters, a pilot scheme will see people tested for Covid-19 before they are allowed to attend events. Rapid tests with lower accuracy will be used for these events, meaning that safe-management measures are still needed and false positives could result.
This pilot programme will be fine-tuned and expanded if it proves successful.
Lastly, more venues will require people to check in to SafeEntry using the TraceTogether app or tokens, in a bid to strengthen Singapore's contact tracing regime.
All these measures will be implemented progressively, depending on the situation both domestically and globally, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.
However, nightlife settings deemed as higher risk - such as bars, karaoke lounges and nightclubs - are likely to remain closed even at the start of phase three.
The Health Ministry added in a separate statement that phase three will not mean a return to the pre-coronavirus world.
"It will entail new ways of working and living, until the world has the virus under tight control," it said, adding that Singaporeans have to be prepared to stay in phase three for a prolonged period, potentially more than a year.
Phase three will also not be static, it said. If more enablers can be put in place, there is scope for further reopening and scaling up of activities during that phase.
Mr Wong, who along with Mr Gan co-chairs the multi-ministerial task force tackling Covid-19 in Singapore, compared the local situation to a fire which has been reduced to embers but is not completely extinguished.
Each relaxation of the rules adds fuel to these embers, he said, with the risk that the fire may flare up again.
The key is to combine further relaxation of measures with additional safeguards, such as scaled up testing and tracking, he said.
"When can these measures take place? That's the big question. The answer is (that) it really depends on all of us," Mr Wong said.
If Singaporeans cooperate with existing measures and keep the transmission rate low, there is a chance that Singapore can enter phase three before the end of this year. But if new clusters emerge, the timeline may have to be pushed back, he said.
He stressed that the fight is far from over, with countries all around the world experiencing spikes in the number of virus cases.
"The hope for a vaccine is there; there are promising candidates, but the journey to distributing a safe and effective vaccine to billions of people around the world will take a long time," he added.
"We need to gird ourselves for a long fight. This is not something we can overcome within one or two months. We have really have to be prepared for the long haul and to continue with our vigilant, disciplined approach to allow us to progressively reopen and resume activities safely."
Even when Singapore does enter phase three, they must continue to keep their guard up, Mr Gan stressed.
"Phase three is not a declaration of victory, and all of us should go around celebrating and forget about the measures," he said. "It's a milestone, that we are saying we have now put in place reasonable measures and safeguards, and we should continue to retain these safeguards."
Why group sizes will be limited to eight in phase three
Asked how the task force arrived at a limit of eight people for gatherings and home visits, Mr Gan replied that safe distancing was a concern.
The taskforce had initially considered increasing the limit to 10 instead of eight, he said.
But in public places, such as restaurants and cinemas, safe distancing measures will still have to be in place.
Having groups of 10 would make it more difficult for patrons to maintain a certain distance from one another, he said.
"We think that moving from five to eight is probably a reasonable increase," he added, noting that a group size of eight is more manageable.
"We'll look at how we can tweak it further as time goes on."