Singapore should be on track to bringing the COVID-19 outbreak under control, barring any super-spreader events or large clusters, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his address to the nation on Monday.
“If our situation continues to improve and the number of community cases falls further, we should be able to relax the restrictions after June 13,” PM Lee added while urging citizens to “stay home, work from home if possible and go out only if you must”.
The prime minister said that Singapore is in a much better position today than a year ago when the first big COVID outbreak occurred.
“We have built up our testing and contact tracing capabilities. Crucially, our vaccination programme is well-advanced. With stronger defences in place, we have not had to impose a full circuit breaker,” said PM Lee.
However, he cautioned that the new, more infectious variants of the COVID-19 virus - like the B117 variant, first detected in the UK and the B16172 variant, first detected in India - also have to be dealt with.
“It implies that we must continually adjust our strategies and raise our game to keep COVID-19 under control,” he said.
“We must test faster, and more liberally and extensively. This will enable us to detect COVID-19 cases more quickly, so that we can isolate them and ringfence their contacts promptly before the virus spreads further,” said Prime Minister Lee.
He said that a number of different types of COVID-19 tests are now available - antigen rapid tests (ART), saliva tests, breathalysers, wastewater surveillance, even sniffer dogs.
“And soon you will be able to purchase DIY tests over the counter at pharmacies. They are simple to use and not so uncomfortable,” he added. “These alternatives to PCR tests help us detect and isolate persons quickly when they are most infectious. This will be a big help in slowing down the spread of COVID-19.”
The prime minister emphasised the need to test more widely, including routine testing at workplaces, which is already being done in higher-risk settings like migrant worker dormitories, construction worksites, shipyards, air and sea ports, hospitals and nursing homes.
“We can also routinely test individuals whose occupations involve close contact with many people and could result in superspreading events, eg taxi drivers and bus captains, physiotherapists, masseurs, stage performers, sports and fitness instructors, and educators could all be tested regularly.” he said.
PM Lee said that the aim was to shift the approach towards testing by not only testing to identify infections when a new case pops up but also routinely and regularly test people who appear well in normal work, or social or community settings.
“Therefore, you should expect routine, large-scale, fast and simple testing to be part of our new normal,” he said.
PM Lee said the nation’s contact tracing operations have greatly improved with increasing experience and skills, and better tools.
“TraceTogether helps them identify and quarantine close contacts of an infected case within hours rather than days. With SafeEntry, they can identify thousands of people who had visited the same places as infected cases and inform all these potential contacts to come forward for a free COVID-19 test,” he said.
“Because of Singaporeans’ self-discipline, public spirit, and support of TraceTogether and SafeEntry, we are contact-tracing faster and more comprehensively,” he added.
The prime minister said that contact tracing can be further improved by casting the net wider and this more aggressive approach will “help us to shut down clusters more quickly”.
The prime minister also emphasised the need to vaccinate more people and faster.
He said that since vaccination started in December, Singapore healthcare and frontline workers, and the majority of those 45 and above, have already received at least their first dose with vaccination of those aged 40-44 underway.
“We want to protect as many Singaporeans as possible and as soon as we can, especially with the new COVID-19 variants. This approach will quickly provide the maximum number of people with good protection, instead of a good number of people with maximum protection,” said PM Lee.
“The constraint is vaccine supply. This is why we have been working very hard to confirm and speed up deliveries of vaccines from our suppliers. I am happy to report that since the last update by the MTF, we have received further confirmation of faster vaccine deliveries over the next two months,” he added.
The prime minister said that the next group to be vaccinated will be students, especially as the latest outbreak saw more cases of children being infected in schools and tuition centres.
“Therefore, we will take advantage of the June holidays to vaccinate students,” he said with bookings opening on June 1.
“We will give priority to the graduating cohorts for O-, N- and A-Levels as well as special needs students. Then, the other students 12 years and above will take their turn, including students in our Institutions of Higher Learning,” he said. “After the students, we will vaccinate the final remaining group, young adults 39 years and younger. This should start around mid-June.”
An appeal to the elderly
The prime minister also made an appeal to the elderly, requesting them to get vaccinated. PM Lee said that while nearly three-quarters of Singapore’s elderly (760,000 senior citizens aged 60 and above) have had at least one jab or booked a slot already, there are 280,000 in that age group that have still not booked appointments.
“Please come forward to get jabbed as soon as possible. Most people of your age have already been vaccinated, including many of your friends and neighbours. The president and I have been vaccinated too, and so have all my Cabinet colleagues. The vaccines are safe and they will keep you safe,” the prime minister appealed.
He added that anyone above the age of 60 can now walk into any vaccination centre and get vaccinated on the spot without any registration or advance booking.
“The new normal”
Citing increasing new COVID-19 cases in countries like India, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia, PM Lee said that he did not expect the virus to disappear.
“It will remain with humankind, and become endemic. The virus will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come. This also means we will see small outbreaks of the disease from time to time in Singapore as well,” he said, adding that in this new normal, everyone will have to “learn to carry on with our lives even with the virus in our midst”.
“Our aim must be to keep the community as a whole safe, while accepting that some people may get infected every now and then. Just as we do with the common flu or dengue fever, which we now manage through public health measures and personal precautions. And in the case of the flu, with regular vaccinations too,” the prime minister added.
He also said an endemic COVID-19 does not mean that Singapore will completely close its borders due to its requirement of food, essential supplies, workers, business and other traveller needs.
“We must stay connected to the world, with effective safeguards and border restrictions to keep ourselves safe. We will not be able to prevent some infected persons from slipping through from time to time. But as long as our population is mostly vaccinated, we should be able to trace, isolate and treat the cases that pop up, and prevent a severe and disastrous outbreak,” he added.
The prime minister emphasised that COVID-19 must not dominate people’s lives in this new normal.
“Our people will be mostly vaccinated and possibly taking booster shots every year. We will get tested often but it will be fast and easy. We will go to work or school, meet friends and family, participate in religious services, and enjoy entertainment and sports events,” he said.
“We will reopen our borders safely. Visitors will again come to Singapore. Singaporeans will travel again to countries where the disease is well under control, especially if we have been vaccinated. And eventually we will even go about without masks again, at least outdoors,” he added, stating that Singapore is heading in the right direction.