‘Almost entire’ economy could reopen before June 30 if infection rates remain low and stable, says Singapore minister

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks into a mall in Singapore. — TODAY file pic
A woman wearing a protective face mask walks into a mall in Singapore. — TODAY file pic

SINGAPORE, May 29 — If Covid-19 infection rates remain low and stable, the Government will decide by mid-June whether Singapore can move out of the first phase of reopening the economy, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said today.

While the first phase — which will start from June 2 — was earlier projected to last four to six weeks, Wong said that the further easing of circuit breaker measures under the second phase could take place before June 30.

Speaking at a media briefing held over the video-conferencing platform Zoom, Wong also said that Singapore is in talks to establish “travel bubbles” with countries where the coronavirus is under control.

That means essential travel between the countries in the “bubble” could take place, with certain protocols in place.

Last week, a multi-ministry task force handling Singapore’s response to Covid-19 announced that after June 1, the country will start to progressively exit the circuit breaker that has halted economic and social activities, and embark on the first phase of a gradual reopening of the economy.

On Wednesday, Wong said that as Singapore gets ready for the first phase, the task force wanted to provide Singaporeans with more clarity on when the second phase could take place and what it would entail should the pre-conditions be met.

“We will continue to monitor the situation, particularly over the first two weeks of June. If infection rates remain low and stable, then we will decide by the middle of June on whether we want to take the next step to move to phase two, and that means that phase two could happen before the end of June,” said Wong, who co-chairs the task force.

He added: “All this is contingent on us looking at data, actual experience, and infection numbers remaining low and stable.

“For now, I think, based on what we have seen so far in the last few days, if things look positive and trends continue and conditions remain favourable, then we should be on track to make a decision according to the timeline we just described.”

Still, he warned that the situation is uncertain and fluid, and if, for example, a large Covid-19 cluster were to appear in early June, the start of the second phase might happen only in mid-July.

“But given where we are and given the situation we have assessed in recent days, and our expectations of what can happen in the next two weeks, we think we can keep infection rates low and in mid-June, (we) can make the decision. So that’s a scenario we are working on and we thought we could share this.”

Activities to resume in Phase Two

Wong said that broadly speaking, the second phase will entail the resumption of a wider range of activities and that the Government expects “almost the entire economy” to resume at the start of this phase.

This would include the reopening of retail shops and consumer services, and the resumption of dining-in at food-and-beverage outlets, subject to a maximum limit of five people for each group of diners.

Phase two will also see the opening of sports facilities such as stadiums and swimming pools, and allowing social interactions and family visits, capped at gatherings of five.

When asked why the task force had settled on the limit of five people for a gathering, Wong said that the number offers a “reasonable balance”.

“Five means that if an infection were to happen, you limit that cluster to that group of five people who were together with that infected person. If you allow 10 people, then potentially, the cluster that could form could be larger. Each person could have another 10 contacts and all that multiplies,” he said.

“(But) if you set it to two people, that could be too tight at the start and it will be very conservative. You will have, potentially, many families who will not be able to gather together. So the balance we struck was five. If a household has more than five people, the rule-of-five will still apply, so if you have more than five people who want to go out for dining, they have to sit at different tables.”

Activities in higher-risk settings will be allowed at a later stage, which could occur within the second phase, but not at the beginning, Wong said.

“Typically, activity or venues with large gatherings of people or close contacts of people in closed places like museums, libraries, religious functions, bars, clubs and discos — all these venues and settings have been instances where there have been cases of transmission in such settings, so we want to take a more cautious approach for activities to resume in these areas.”

The Government will hold discussions with businesses and organisations in these sectors on the safeguards and safe management measures that will be needed for them to reopen and, subject to those measures being in place, it will advance the talks to the question of the timing of such resumption within the second phase.

“They may not all resume at the start of phase two, but if they have safeguards in phase, they may resume later but within phase two.”

When asked how long the second phase could last, Wong said that it will depend on the implementation of safeguards in these higher-risk settings.

“It depends on the organisations and public health experts. If controls are tight enough, we may allow them to start in the early part of phase two, but it is difficult to work in these precautions and safeguards, so these may need to wait to the later part of phase two.

“So depending on the outcome of our investigations and discussions with these stakeholders, this may stretch on for a while. It may well be in the region of months or it could be shorter.”

Wong said that as the second phase begins and more activities resume, it will be even more important for everyone to take responsibility for their actions.

“With more activities, the likelihood of transmission rises and we have to be prepared that there will be more cases.

“It will be all the more important to stay vigilant and socially responsible, and do all the things that each individual has to do, and not just what the Government expects you to do.”

Similarly, whether or not the schedule for the second phase that the task force has sketched out can materialise will depend on every resident being responsible, he added.

“If we can all do our part, if we are socially responsible, all the way from now till the middle of June, then we stand a good chance of proceeding with phase two before the end of June. But if people choose to disregard rules and choose to flout and breach the rules and take reckless actions that may cause clusters to form, then it will be very, very hard for us to proceed on this timeline.”

‘Essential’ travel

At the same time, Wong said that Singapore is continuing conversations with several countries on the safe reopening of borders. He did not specify the countries in question.

“The idea is to have clear protocols, like testing of travellers, so we can have assurance that the traveller is free of infection and essential travel can then resume... particularly for businesses based here in Singapore whose employees need some travel around the region,” he said.

“This will allow not only business to resume but jobs to continue and ensure that Singaporeans can continue to work not just in Singapore but in places where they need to travel for work.”

Wong stressed, however, that this does not mean that the Government will allow mass-market travel.

“That will take a bit longer. The arrangements I just described refer to essential travel, subject to the safeguards I just described and the travel bubbles we will work out with (the) respective countries.” — TODAY

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