Covid-19: Singapore ‘neither reversing nor racing ahead’ with reopening but pausing to slow, monitor spread, say ministers

The authorities will monitor the rise of infections over the weeks ahead before embarking on further steps to reopen, the Covid-19 task force said. ― AFP pic via TODAY
The authorities will monitor the rise of infections over the weeks ahead before embarking on further steps to reopen, the Covid-19 task force said. ― AFP pic via TODAY

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SINGAPORE, Sept 10 — In the face of questions over the progress of Singapore’s reopening amid a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said today that the country is neither “reversing” nor “racing ahead” but will take the next two to four weeks to slow down transmission and monitor the rise in infections.

“Let us navigate this wave first, before we embark on further steps to reopen. So for now, we are not reversing,” Ong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 task force, said at an online press conference.

“We still want to progress on our transition journey, but we’re not racing ahead.”

Echoing this view, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, another co-chair of the task force, said that it would not be prudent to press ahead with further opening-up during this period, especially in the midst of an exponential rise in infections.

“That would be a reckless thing to do under current circumstances We believe it is more prudent to take a pause now, do our best to slow down the spread where we can, and then monitor closely what happens to our ICU (intensive care unit) situation over the next two to four weeks.”

The number of locally transmitted coronavirus cases has quadrupled over the past 18 days. The authorities expect daily cases to hit 1,000 soon and 2,000 in a few weeks, said the task force.

As a result, it is adopting a cautious approach to allow the country more time to ascertain that there will not be a spike in serious cases or deaths, said Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, another co-chair of the task force.

Gan said that there have been questions about whether the Government was going back on its plan to reopen despite Singapore’s high vaccination rate, which stands at 81 per cent.

“I understand that many would prefer a straighter road to Covid-19 resilience. We have said before that we must expect some twists and turns along the way, given the unpredictability of the virus.

“So we need to be prepared to adjust our plans, as we go along,” he said.

Ong pointed to the exponential rise in cases since Aug 23, when there were 94 locally transmitted cases. Yesterday, there were 450 such infections.

The surge, fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, was not unexpected but is happening sooner than expected, he said.

Even so, the number of admissions to ICUs has been kept low, though the authorities expect it to rise.

Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), said that the Delta variant causes more severe infections.

In many countries, including the United Kingdom and Israel, cases infected with the Delta variant have been shown to be more than twice as likely to be admitted to hospitals compared with infections by other variants.

Studies by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases also confirmed that patients with the Delta strain were more likely to require oxygen support and intensive care, and were at higher risk of death.

The next two to four weeks will be crucial, said Gan, in determining whether patients eventually face serious illness or complications.

He acknowledged that the rapid rise in infections has resulted in some public anxiety, which was why the authorities unveiled measures earlier this week to slow down the increase and prevent Singapore’s healthcare capacity from being overwhelmed.

The authorities have urged the public to limit their social interactions to one a day, and from Wednesday, banned social gatherings and interactions at workplaces.

Singaporeans, especially vulnerable seniors and those who live with older family members, were also strongly encouraged to reduce their non-essential social activities for the next two weeks.

As Singapore enters “more uncharted” waters in the coming days, Gan said that the country would need to step up testing.

The Government will use the next few weeks to monitor the number of serious cases, ramp up its testing capacity and continue increasing its vaccination coverage.

“This will allow us to move forward with more confidence in time to come.”

Covid-19 situation

In an update today, MOH said that most residents are respecting infection-control measures and around 0.5 per cent of Covid-19 tests have come back positive.

Even so, the number of daily cases has been rising over the past fortnight, from an average of 76 cases a day to 288 cases daily in the past week.

“At the current trajectory, it is likely that we will soon reach more than 1,000 daily cases, detected early through intensified testing,” said MOH.

For now, the number of serious cases remains low. As of yesterday, there were 26 cases of serious illness needing oxygen support and seven in critical condition under intensive care.

This, said MOH, is likely due to the high vaccination rate and the younger age profile of those infected with Covid-19.

The ministry said that there remained strong evidence suggesting that vaccination protects against severe illness.

Among fully vaccinated Covid-19 patients in the past 28 days, 99.2 per cent had mild or no symptoms. Among the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated, 95.1 per cent had mild or no symptoms.

“Nevertheless, we are still early in this new wave of transmission and we need to continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant.” — TODAY

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