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Singapore welcomes new Covid-19 endemic norm

Khairani Afifi Noordin
Khairani Afifi Noordin2/9/2023 12:10 PM GMT+08  • 6 min read
Singapore welcomes new Covid-19 endemic norm
From left, Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at MOH; deputy prime minister and finance minister Lawrence Wong; trade and industry minister Gan Kim Yong and health minister Ong Ye Kung / Photo: MCI
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Amid low risk of Covid-19 infections leading to severe illnesses or deaths — comparable to other endemic respiratory diseases — Singapore will lift its remaining pandemic measures and establish an endemic new norm, says Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

Speaking at the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF) press conference on Feb 9, co-chair Wong says that the World Health Organization has recently acknowledged that the pandemic is nearing a turning point, signalling that the Covid-19 emergency may be ending soon.

He acknowledges that the new normal is not static. “The virus will continue to evolve, and we can expect new infection waves from time to time. Unless it is a very dangerous and virulent variant, however, we will manage these waves with appropriate measures that will allow us to continue to live our lives normally,” adds Wong.

Singapore has developed a high level of hybrid immunity and is well protected from severe Covid-19. Around 80% of the population have achieved minimum protection, while around half are up to date with their vaccinations.

The risk of Covid-19 infections leading to severe illness or death has become very low: Last month, the daily number of Covid-19-related hospitalisations stayed below 100 while daily Covid-19-related patients in intensive care units remained in the single digits.

“Last year, we saw 820 deaths related to Covid-19. In contrast, we have 5,400 deaths from pneumonia of other causes. Therefore, Covid-19 no longer has as severe an outcome as compared to other respiratory infections that we see in Singapore,” says Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH).

See also: BioNTech beats estimates as vaccine maker pursues more diseases

Meanwhile, Health Minister and task force co-chair Ong Ye Kung says that Singapore’s Covid-19 situation has remained stable in recent months, despite increased travel during the year-end holiday period, the Northern Hemisphere winter season and China’s shift away from a zero-Covid policy. “All three pose significant risks; we were worried about it. But today, those risks are substantially past,” says Ong, adding that the current uncertainties and risks are significantly lower than one or two months ago.

Changes to community measures

From Feb 13, Singapore has adjusted the current Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level to green from yellow. On this scale, Singapore was at the more urgent “orange” level but never at “red” — the most critical condition, where the disease is deemed severe and spreading widely.

See also: Covid-19 global health emergency is over after three years: WHO

This alert level is lowered because of the stable global and local situation, the mild nature of the disease, especially among vaccinated individuals, and the minimal disruption posed to Singapore’s healthy capacity.

Mask-wearing on public transport and indoor healthcare and residential care settings will no longer be required. However, MOH will retain the practice of mask-wearing for visitors, staff and patients in patient-facing indoor areas. This includes hospital wards, clinics and nursing homes.

Singapore also stands down Protocols one, two and three, which are its advisories for unwell or infected persons. Instead, an updated general advisory will be applied, whereby persons with mild acute respiratory infection should stay home until symptoms resolve, for example.

The Trace Together and Safe Entry applications, which had been pivotal in contact tracing efforts and enabling the implementation of community safe management measures, will be phased out. Residents will no longer be required to submit Trace Together data, while Safe Entry data is no longer collected. The health ministry has also deleted all identifiable Trace Together and Safe Entry data from its servers and databases, the MTF adds.

“Members of the public can now uninstall their Trace Together app,” says Ong. “We also encourage individuals to return their Trace Together tokens so that we can refurbish and recycle them should we need them in future.”

The government will further scale back pandemic subsidies and re-align the provisions of financing support for Covid-19 testing and treatment to that of other acute illnesses. For instance, all patients who visit a hospital or Covid-19 treatment facilities will no longer be accorded full subsidies. Regular healthcare safety nets such as MediShield and MediSave will instead be applied.

As vaccination remains Singapore’s first line of defence, the government has introduced updated recommendations on vaccination guidelines. For example, those at higher risk of severe disease from Covid-19 should take the booster around one year after the last booster dose.

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Border measures will also be eased: All non-fully vaccinated travellers entering Singapore will no longer be required to show proof of a negative pre-departure test. Meanwhile, non-fully vaccinated short-term visitors will no longer be required to purchase Covid-19 travel insurance.

The Vaccinated Travel Framework launched in April 2022 to facilitate the safe resumption of international travel will be kept in place, says the Minister for Trade and Industry, Gan Kim Yong, also a co-chair of the task force. This will allow quick adjustments to risk classification of countries and Singapore’s border measures based on travellers’ vaccination status, should the need arise. The health ministry will also continue to screen travellers for other infectious diseases such as yellow fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome and Ebola.

Monitoring of situation will continue

Following the announcement, the MTF will be stood down, passing the management of the Covid-19 situation to MOH. An appropriate multi-agency crisis management structure may be reactivated if the situation worsens significantly.

“We will continue close surveillance of Covid-19 internationally and within Singapore while MOH continues to monitor health care capacity. If there is a new and dangerous variance or our healthcare capacity becomes strained, we may have to revise the Dorscon level. We may have to reactivate community and border measures and multi-agency crisis management structures like the MTF,” says Wong.

Having reviewed Singapore’s experience with Covid-19 over the past three years, the government is undertaking a comprehensive after-action review to set out what it did right, what could have been done better and how it can prepare itself for the next pandemic, says Wong. The report will be published when it is “ready” before being tabled in the parliament for a whole debate.

When asked to provide more information about the report’s publication date, Wong replied that it would not be in the near term due to the upcoming Budget 2023 announcement followed by a season of Committee of Supply debates. “After that, we will look at the schedule and see when would be a good time to do so.”

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