Workplace and team-bonding restrictions likely to be eased as part of Singapore's next steps to becoming a 'COVID-resilient' state
The country's approach to a controlled and phased re-opening could see more face-to-face work meetings, fully vaccinated individuals travelling without serving the full 14-day SHN and having other privileges such as dining out, among other changes detailed by the Multi-Ministry Taskforce.
A Parliamentary sitting on 26 July (Monday) saw a series of ministerial statements by Singapore's Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF), on the country's progress and next steps forward in moving towards an endemic future.
In his statement, Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong shared how the country will move out of Phase Two (Heightened Alert) and towards a new normal, speaking from the point of view of businesses.
He noted that even as the country plans ahead, "we know that businesses are naturally concerned about what an endemic state means for their daily operations, and the adjustments they may need to make as we get there."
In line with this, the minister touched on details that would "give businesses a sense of the path forward, to help them plan ahead."
A differentiated approach to easing restrictions, for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals
Minister Gan shared: "As our vaccination coverage increases, we will be in a much stronger position to relax our measures safely and confidently. We will begin to adjust our Safe Management Measures (SMMs) in stages, subject to trends in serious cases. For example, restrictions on social gatherings will ease and we can expect larger dining-in group sizes, and lower requirements and higher capacity for events.
"We will take a differentiated approach – vaccinated individuals will be able to engage in a wider range of social activities and in larger groups, while those who are unvaccinated will only be able to do so with a negative with Pre-Event Test (PET) result."
With this, he explained, F&B, retail, and other businesses that provide in-person services such as gyms and beauty services will see a return in demand. "Sectors such as tourism, cruises, and MICE will also get some relief as capacity limits are progressively raised, although foreign tourists will take some time to return.
"Workplace restrictions will also be eased, and progressively, more workers can go back to the office. Businesses will be able to conduct important face-to-face meetings, or hold workplace events that are important for networking or team-bonding."
How then can businesses prepare for this re-opening?
There are three ways Minister Gan shared that businesses can prepare to re-open.
- First, is to encourage and facilitate all medically-eligible employees, especially those involved in high-touch point activities, to get vaccinated, and deploy those who cannot be vaccinated to lower-risk settings.
- Second, is to integrate the use of ART self-tests into your work processes, especially for businesses that provide high-touch point services, or which tap on a pool of workers that frequently change. "Encourage employees to self-isolate and get themselves tested if they are not feeling well, or if they suspect they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Doing so can help detect cases early, and limit the extent of disruption to your business."
- Third, is to continue allowing flexible work arrangements and putting in place business continuity plans, to strengthen operational resilience.
In addition to the above, the minister shared that the MTF is looking at relaxing the country's border restrictions safely.
"As a small and open economy, we simply do not have the luxury of closing ourselves off to the world. Many parts of our economy require a steady flow of people in and out of Singapore – be it workers or visitors. As a business hub, many of our executives have to travel to manage and grow their regional businesses. Our tourism and MICE industry, as well as our air hub status, also critically depends on international connectivity.
"We should also not forget the international community based here. Many have not been able to return home to visit their families since the start of the pandemic. It has not been easy for them."
Therefore, he shared, as the country's vaccination coverage increases, and the majority of residents here are protected against the virus, the government will "progressively facilitate international travel with countries that have managed COVID-19 well, and allow fully vaccinated persons to travel and to do business more freely."
This, he highlighted, is a critical move that will "allow us to reassert Singapore’s position as a business, travel and talent hub."
The government is currently working this out carefully and engaging partner countries, and will provide an update when ready.
Arriving at a truly endemic state where 'practically all social and workplace restrictions can be lifted'
Following this, Minister Gan said: "We will continue to push for higher vaccination coverage, and if the incidence of severe illness from COVID-19 remains low despite clusters emerging from time to time, we will eventually be able to arrive at a truly endemic state.
"Practically all social and workplace restrictions can be lifted, although some critical measures, such as mask-wearing and precautions for large events, may remain."
This, he added, means that domestically, infected cases will create much less disruption than they do today, ensuring that businesses can largely return to normal operations.
Further details the minister shared include:
- For the majority of cases, businesses will not have to shut down their premises for deep cleaning, and there will be no need to commit huge resources towards contact tracing. Instead, infected individuals with mild symptoms may be able to recover from home, and close contacts will likely just be required to monitor their health without the need for quarantine or self-isolation, similar to influenza cases are treated today.
- "Globally, Singapore will likely be one of the highest vaccinated countries in the world. We will be able to regain strong air and maritime connectivity to a large number of countries, while ensuring that our healthcare system is well-functioning and not overstretched by COVID-19 cases. This will make us one of the best places to work and live, in the region and across the world."
Concluding his statement, Minister Gan said: "Before I end, I would like to sincerely thank Singaporeans, our businesses, and our workers for walking this journey with us for the last 18 months. It has been tremendously difficult for many of you, and we are deeply appreciative of the commitment and grit that you have shown.
"We are so close to reaching the end of the tunnel. We will soon achieve a relatively high vaccination coverage, which will allow us to move decisively to a COVID-resilient state. I appeal to everyone, to not lose heart, and work together to press on in our journey."
In a separate statement, Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong shared about the re-opening roadmap, from a holistic, countrywide point of view.
This approach, he explained, will involve synchronising the country's re-opening with its vaccination coverage - not just of the overall population, but amongst the seniors, who are the most vulnerable group.
He noted that the following can be expected in the weeks ahead:
In early August, at the mid-point of the Phase Two (Heightened Alert) period, the MTF plans to review the current set of measures, by assessing the overall infection situation and monitoring the status of the infected cases, to confirm that the link between infection and hospitalisation has been weakened by the vaccines.
"Importantly, by then, two-thirds of our population would have received two doses, and we would have vaccinated about three-quarters of our seniors aged 70 and above. So if the clusters are under control, and hospitalisation rates remain low, we will be able to ease some of the Phase Two (HA) measures."
However, similar to what Minister Gan has shared, Minister Wong added that the easing will be differentiated and extended to only vaccinated persons, who are "much better protected against the effects of the virus."
"This means that if you want to attend a large event or a religious service involving more than 100 persons, you have to be fully vaccinated. Likewise, if you want to go out to dine in a restaurant or work out in a gym, you have to be fully vaccinated."
80% of population expected to be fully vaccinated by early Sept, may travel without serving full SHN
Minister Wong further shared that 80% of the population is expected to be fully vaccinated by around early September, and the MTF hopes to cover a similar proportion of seniors aged 70 and above.
Following this, the government will ease the restrictions further. It will begin establishing travel corridors with countries or regions that have managed the situation well, and where the infection is similarly under control.
In that period, fully vaccinated individuals will be able to travel without needing to serve the full 14-day Stay Home Notice in a hotel when they return. Minister Wong said: "Depending on the risk level of the country they visit, we will either replace the SHN with a rigorous testing regime, or shorten the SHN to seven days at home. This will allow vaccinated persons to travel more freely.
"Those who are not vaccinated can still travel, but will be subject to the prevailing SHN requirements."
Basic SMMs to remain relevant and important throughout the phased re-opening
Above all, Minister Wong highlighted: "Basic SMMs like keeping a safe distance from others and wearing a mask can help reduce transmission effectively. So we must stay disciplined and continue to maintain these practices, even as we transition towards the new normal.
"For example, we would probably not want to do away completely with our mask requirements. We may consider dispensing with masks when outdoors, but it would still make sense to wear them in an indoor enclosed environment where the transmission risks are greater. So this may well be one of the last rules to go in the new normal."
Coming to the overall numbers, in addressing queries on Singapore's COVID-19 vaccination programme, Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung shared in his statement that as of 25 July, 54% of the population has received two doses of a mRNA vaccine.
"Our population vaccination rate is going up by about one percentage point a day. By National Day, almost 70% will have received two doses. By early-September, it should be almost 80%. This means Singapore will have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. It puts us in a strong position to transit to a COVID resilient society."
He then went on to explain that even as the country adopts a controlled re-opening, "we must bear in mind that until we reach a sufficiently high vaccination rate, especially among our seniors, we will continue to be vulnerable to unexpected setbacks, like what we are going through now."
He added: "
As we learn to live with COVID-19, our healthcare protocols must be remodelled. If COVID-19 is indeed endemic, having 200 or more cases a day may not be unusual at all. During an Influenza season, our daily infection can go up to 1,000 a day. Imagine we treat Influenza like we treat COVID-19 now.
"We will put everyone suspected of Influenza infections through PCR tests and long isolated stays in hospitals, and quarantine everyone they came into contact. It will disrupt the lives of many people. Further hospital beds will all be filled, and many other patients who are sicker will be turned away. The healthcare system will not be able to cope, and that is clearly not the way to deal with an endemic disease."
With the current rate of vaccination, Minister Ong touched on how the country is taking the first transition step to remodel its healthcare protocols. As of last week, he shared, the following changes have been made:
With our current rate of vaccinations, we have started to take the first transition step to remodel our healthcare protocols. As of last week, we made the following changes:
First, greater use of community care facilities instead of hospitals. Vaccinated individuals aged between 45 and 59 who test positive for COVID-19 and show no or mild symptoms, can be directly admitted to community care facilities instead of going first to hospitals. This was already the practice for all cases aged between 17 and 45 years, but it is now being expanded to people up to age 59.
"With this change, we expect up to 60% of infected cases to recover in community care facilities, instead of in acute care hospitals. Meanwhile, we will plan for the next step, where perhaps 80% can be admitted to community care facilities, and some can even recover at home."
Second, is a shortened length of stay in hospitals and community care facilities. "Our tests have shown that the viral load in infected persons who are fully vaccinated falls very rapidly, to a very low level after nine days.
"Previously, most people generally were discharged only after 21 days. We are now discharging fully vaccinated persons from isolation after 14 days from onset of illness with a seven-day leave of absence, so long as their tests show that they are COVID-19 negative or have very low viral loads. We are reviewing our policy to allow fully vaccinated patients to be discharged even earlier, and to complete the rest of the isolation period at home, if their home environment is suitable."
Third, is the greater use of home quarantine, wherein fully vaccinated persons can now serve their quarantine at home instead of at a government quarantine facility, provided that their home is suitable for isolation.
"We expect up to 40% of persons under quarantine can serve their quarantine at home, and this will go beyond 50% in the coming few weeks as more people get vaccinated."