Singapore Warns of ‘Omicron Wave’ as Workplace Rules Eased
(Bloomberg) -- Singapore will loosen some workplace rules as the city-state sees Covid-19 infections easing off their peak, even while it braces for a potential “omicron wave.”
Up to 50% of fully-vaccinated individuals who can work from home will be allowed to return to the office from Jan. 1, the Ministry of Health said in a statement Tuesday, although social gatherings at the workplace still aren’t allowed.
But with preliminary data on the new virus strain suggesting that it is at least as transmissible as the delta variant and may carry a higher risk of re-infection, the government said it would put in place additional measures to prepare to deal with the spread of omicron in the community.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic is not ending soon,” Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the country’s virus taskforce, said at a briefing Tuesday. “In some ways this is perhaps the calm before the next storm. So we do have to brace ourselves for the omicron wave.”
In an early sign of the government’s desire to cajole the population to take up boosters, taskforce co-chair and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, said at the same briefing that officials would set a “validity period” for vaccine regimes, with the duration to be determined. There’s a need for Singapore to treat primary vaccination as three doses, he added.
This follows similar announcements in the U.K. that so-called “vaccine passports” for large events would soon require proof of booster shots as well.
Ahead of the ministers’ comments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday Singapore was confident that it could cope with the challenge posed by omicron. With vaccinations and boosters, the city-state is starting to see encouraging signs, although it’s not out of the woods yet, Lee said.
The highly-vaccinated Southeast Asian hub has been trying to pull off the rare feat of transitioning to living with the virus and allowing infection to become endemic while preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. While it’s opened up travel for vaccinated people to a number of countries, domestic social rules remain relatively strict with only five people from different households allowed to gather at a time.
After a harrowing peak of more than 4,500 community cases a day in end-October, infections have stayed below 800 cases in the past week while its weekly infection rate has dipped to 0.6.
So far, though it’s detected 16 omicron cases, the city-state has not reversed course on incremental easing. It has tightened testing at the border and postponed the start of vaccinated travel lanes with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
To counter the new threat, Singapore -- with 87% of its total population inoculated -- is continuing to ramp up vaccinations. Shots will be extended to children aged five to 11, and this could potentially start before the end of the year.
The government is also seeking to tighten the screws on those who decline to come forward for jabs further, with authorities mulling whether to scrap a previous exemption allowing unvaccinated employees to enter the workplace if they have a valid test, said Wong.
Further steps to bar most unvaccinated individuals from public venues including indoor sports facilities, higher education institutions and hotels will also kick in from Feb. 1, while carve-outs allowing them to perform tests instead of having to prove their inoculation status to enter public spaces will be removed from the start of next year as well.
Here are some further details from the briefing:
- Travel between Singapore and neighboring Malaysia via the land border will now be extended to vaccinated citizens of both countries
- Booster jabs will be made available to 18-29s from Dec. 14, if they have completed a two-dose regime at least five months earlier
- Plans are in place to increase capacity and manpower at community facilities and hospitals to deal with a potential surge due to omicron
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