SINGAPORE - The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is looking at whether the isolation period sailors have to undergo before overseas deployments can be shortened, as it transitions towards living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease.
Colonel Daniel Ng Kok Yeng, the RSN's deputy head of naval operations, told reporters on Friday (July 2) that while the navy's current precautions are robust and stringent, they might not be the right approach for the long term.
He noted that more than 95 per cent of RSN personnel are vaccinated. "So we have already attained herd immunity," he said in response to a question on whether the current Covid-19 measures the navy takes are sustainable.
"So do we still need to lock in our people for seven days before sailing, and to test all (of them)? We can reduce the period, or even just sail."
Sailors have to undergo a period of isolation away from home, such as on board ships or at army camps, before they can be deployed overseas. Currently, this lasts for about seven days.
Col Ng, 41, said in a video conference call that the navy has continued operating throughout the pandemic. But he noted there was "definitely a price to pay for continuing to deploy in a pandemic scenario", with the additional time servicemen spend away from home.
"That's why I think this shift is quite important for all of us, because in an endemic scenario, with some key enablers and some mental shift, I think we again need to change the way we do business."
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said last week that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has moved towards a scenario where Covid-19 is endemic.
More than 90 per cent of SAF and Ministry of Defence personnel will be fully vaccinated by the middle of this month. With a high level of vaccination, restrictions can be eased to allow units to operate at maximum effectiveness, he said.
The RSN took part in multiple overseas exercises last year, including Exercise Singaroo with Australia in September and the Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise in November. Planning of such exercises continued through virtual meetings, and no physical interactions took place between the crew of RSN and other navies.
Four ships are currently deployed to the US island territory of Guam for Exercise Pacific Griffin.
To cope with the demands of the Covid-19 situation, Col Ng said video calls are now more common, with better connectivity on board ships. Families of servicemen are also assured of their well-being with the help of liaison officers.
For Mother's Day, initiatives by family liaison officers included arranging for cards and flowers to be sent to the mothers of servicemen who were out at sea.
Meanwhile, other ongoing initiatives have been hastened as the navy prepares for long deployments.
Visors with an attached camera allow ship crew to do live video calls with experts back on shore so that defects can be rectified more easily. Previously, problems faced by ship crew were described using pictures and text.
These visors are being used during Exercise Pacific Griffin. The aim is to eventually roll it out to all RSN ships, said Military Expert 5 Chin Ching Wei, 42, branch head of radar and navigational and C2 systems in the Systems Readiness Engineering Centre.
The use of data analytics has also meant that maintenance is now being done even before faults surface.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jamin Lau, 35, commanding officer of frigate RSS Intrepid, believes that having the isolation period and testing before operations allow the crew to focus on their mission without worrying about being infected.
Covid-19 has caused stressors to appear, even outside of deployments, he said. For instance, sailors might be concerned about their young children who have to do home-based learning, or about their elderly parents.
These stressors are something that the unit pays attention to, LTC Lau added, to ensure that sailors' mental and emotional well-being is taken care of.