SINGAPORE - Singapore will enter phase three of its reopening in two weeks, on Dec 28, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (Dec 14).
The permitted group size for social gatherings will go up from five to eight, with capacity limits in public places such as malls, attractions and places of worship to be increased.
In a televised national address, PM Lee expressed his gratitude to Singaporeans who complied with the spirit of the rules to keep the coronavirus under control.
"We stayed united, kept up our guard, and did not allow ourselves to become complacent over time," he said. "With everyone's full support, our enhanced safeguards worked, and we could gradually ease our restrictions. And we can be proud of how far we have come."
Phase three means that Singapore will end the year with some good news, he added.
But Mr Lee stressed that even so, the Covid-19 virus has not been eradicated and there is still a long way to go.
The pandemic continues to rage around the world, with many countries seeing multiple waves of infection and record numbers of daily cases, he said. This means that Singaporeans must continue to keep their guard up, even as the country reopens its borders in a controlled and safe way.
The Prime Minister noted that it has nearly been a full year since Singapore's first Covid-19 case on Jan 23.
But much has changed within the last few months, with the country managing to get the daily number of new infections down from more than 1,000 cases in March and April, to zero cases of local transmissions on most days now.
He noted that when the pandemic first started, people were worried about supermarkets having sufficient supplies. Parents were concerned about whether their children should go to school.
But now, supermarket shelves are full, the school year has been kept intact, and life is more normal than it was during the two-month circuit breaker period.
It took a tremendous effort, and some good luck for Singapore to bring things under control, Mr Lee added.
Singapore's hard measures worked, and Singaporeans showed resilience and took them in their stride. "Our economy took a big hit, but we did not let it crash. Despite the global economic dislocation, most of our workers kept their jobs."
Now, the country's defences against Covid-19 are much stronger, Mr Lee said.
It has steadily built up its testing procedures and capacities, with rostered routine testing of higher risk groups and antigen rapid tests at larger gatherings and events.
It has also beefed up its contact tracing capabilities, such as expanding the SafeEntry and TraceTogether programmes.
"We got used to the inconvenient restrictions, and found ways to carry on with life," Mr Lee said. "We looked after one another, reminding each other to adhere to safe distancing, to wear masks, to see a doctor if ill, and so on."
At present, international borders remained closed. But trade and travel are Singapore's lifeblood, Mr Lee said.
"The longer our own borders stay closed to travellers, the greater the risk of us permanently losing out as an international hub, and consequently hurting our livelihoods."
He warned that Singapore will see more imported cases as it reopens its borders, and that there will be some risk of these cases spreading to the community.
This has already happened in some instances - for example, a member of airport staff who likely came into contact with infected passengers, and a marine worker who picked up the virus after boarding ships to do repair and supply work.
"This is a calculated risk we have to accept," Mr Lee said. "But the government will take every precaution, and do our best to prevent imported cases from triggering a new outbreak."
He also noted that the virus is likely still "circulating silently" within the community, and hence, Singaporeans must keep their guard up.
"By all means make use of the higher limits and reconnect with friends and family," he said. "But please do not abandon your mindset of watchfulness and caution."
Restrictions are being eased in a controlled way, so as to keep the Covid-19 situation stable and allow Singapore to take more steps forward later, he added.
In his speech, PM Lee also announced that the first shipment of vaccines will be reaching Singapore by the end of this month, with enough vaccines for everyone in Singapore by the third quarter of next year.
"Now that vaccines are becoming available, we can see light at the end of the tunnel," Mr Lee said. "As vaccinations become widespread not only in Singapore, but also in our region and the world, we can look forward to resuming more normal lives.
"Let us keep up our efforts in this final stretch, to cross the finish line together, and complete our mission to defeat Covid-19."
The multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic elaborated on some of the announcements PM Lee made, and gave an update on migrant workers.
Workers in some dormitories will be allowed back into the community once a month, as part of a pilot scheme. To do so, these workers will have to undergo rostered routine testing, wear contact tracing devices, and comply with safe living measures.
Rounding up the press conference, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said the risk of infection will go up as more people are allowed to gather and more social and economic activities resume.
"That means the enforcement, the discipline has to be strengthened and tightened so we can continue to contain the risk and keep the number of cases as low as possible, so we can have a smooth and safe journey through phase three," he said.