Singapore to Ease Covid Curbs in Shift to Life With Virus
(Bloomberg) -- Singapore announced plans to ease Covid restrictions on daily life and begin slightly loosening border controls, citing a vaccination rate that now ranks among the best in the world.
Dining-in will resume and group sizes will be raised to five from two on Aug. 10 for those who have been fully vaccinated, officials said, outlining a strategy that will intentionally treat those who’ve had both shots differently from those who haven’t. Work-from-home rules are expected to ease the following week. The country will also restart entry approvals for fully vaccinated foreign workers and their dependents.
“We are now in a stronger position to resume with our reopening journey, but in the cautious and calibrated way,” Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong told reporters at a briefing Friday. “We will do that in stages.”
The Southeast Asian trade hub first handled the pandemic by adopting a so-called ‘Covid-zero’ strategy to eliminate viral outbreaks, but in recent months said it would transition to finding a way to live with endemic Covid. The key, officials have said, would be mass vaccination -- targeting an 80% vaccine rate across the island state of almost 5.7 million.
If it’s able to ease, and stick with that easing, Singapore would be among the first Covid-zero countries to pivot to a mass vaccination strategy. The country has been tested in recent weeks by outbreaks that spawned hundreds of new infections, with dozens of unlinked cases each day, forcing the government to delay its reopening plans and reimpose strict social curbs. The number of infections has slipped below 100 a day this week, including 93 local cases reported Friday.
However, case counts have stabilized, coming down from their late-July highs, and the hospital system hasn’t been overwhelmed, officials said. Vaccine rates have increased, with 67% of the population now fully vaccinated. As such, the easing is back on.
With rising vaccination coverage, the country plans to recognize more vaccines in the World Health Organization’s Emergency Use Listing, according to a statement from the Ministry of Health. From Aug. 10, individuals with vaccines from Sinovac, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca will be eligible. Sinopharm vaccines will be made available in Singapore soon, an importer said last month.
Singapore will differentiate by vaccine status, so those inoculated will have more freedoms. Allowances for this group, beginning Aug. 10, will include:
- Group sizes increased to five, up from two
- Dining in restaurants allowed in groups of five
- Events like worship services, movies, spectator sports, and weddings can also have larger gatherings if everyone is vaccinated
The city-state’s famed hawker centers will reopen to both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, though those will be limited to groups of two.
Singapore plans to ease its strict work-from-home rules from Aug. 19, if conditions allow. The change would let as many as 50% of employees who are otherwise able to work at home to return to the office.
Other changes possible on Aug. 19 would include:
- Ending required temperature screening before entering public places like shopping malls
- Increasing capacity for malls, cinemas, cruises, libraries and attractions
Not everything is going away though. Singapore’s mandatory mask-wearing rules will remain “for quite some time,” Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said.
Singapore will restart entry approvals for most foreign workers and their dependents starting Aug. 10, officials said, on condition that they must be fully vaccinated before arriving.
It will also allow certain fully-vaccinated travelers from Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Italy, Norway, South Korea and Switzerland to apply to serve 14-day stay-home notices at their places of residence, rather than dedicated facilities, starting Aug. 20 at 11.59 p.m. The city-state earlier this week said it would also ease regulations on visitors from Taiwan.
Officials signaled that more border easing may be on the way. Singapore plans to open vaccinated travel lanes with selected countries, where frequent testing may replace mandatory stay-home rules on arrival. Among examples mentioned: the U.S. and some European Union countries that already consider Singapore low risk and accept travelers from the city-state. Singapore would need to consider reciprocating.
Ong said Singapore is targeting vaccinating 80% of its population -- a mark expected to to be reached in early September -- in order to start relaxing some of its toughest travel restrictions. Some 78% of the population has had at least their first vaccine dose already.
Singapore’s easing will still leave the city-state with much tighter curbs on daily life than in many other places trailing it in mass vaccinations, such as the U.S., Canada, U.K. and the European Union.
However the eased measures signal Singapore’s intention to follow through on a pledge to treat Covid-19 as endemic amid a vaccination program that has seen two-thirds of the country achieve full vaccination with mRNA vaccines.
Clusters have come “under control,” said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, a co-lead of the country’s virus response group. He said the delta variant has made it harder to bring down case counts, but the country has prevented what he called an “uncontrollable surge in cases that could potentially have overwhelmed our health-care system.”
Officials warned that they may need to slow down the reopening pace, and could even impose additional measures to buy time, should Singapore’s overall health-care system appear to be under stress.
Singapore’s transition road map going forward will be “a very careful balance between lives and livelihoods,” Ong said. “Ours will be a step by step approach feeling our way forward, making judgment calls along the way instead of one big bang where all restrictions are lifted all at once.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.