SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN): The next relaxation of Covid-19 measures is expected on July 12, as part of a three-step plan for the country's further reopening that could potentially see the Republic transiting to a new normal by September, as well as leisure travel returning by the end of the year.
"Come July 12, we are looking at opening up to (allow) more people dining together, and whether there are other openings that we can consider," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told The Straits Times' senior health correspondent Salma Khalik in an exclusive interview on Thursday (July 1).
He added that this relaxation of measures is less dependent on vaccination rates, and more on whether Covid-19 clusters are under control.
The next milestone for further easing will be in the second half of July, when half of the population would have been fully vaccinated, followed by National Day, when two-thirds of residents would have been inoculated, he added.
"Hopefully we can mark (the milestone) with the National Day Parade as another step of opening, before we reach the endemic Covid stage. You want the transition to be a... step-by-step one, where you slowly move towards it as opposed to a sudden transition," said the minister, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.
Ong said he also shares Singaporeans' aspirations for leisure travel to resume by the end of the year. Possible destinations would be countries with high vaccination rates, and which have seen downward trends in their infection rates.
These include most countries in the European Union, as well as the United States.
"Once a place's (Covid-19) trajectory is downwards, vaccinations going up and you go below, say, (an infection rate of) three per 100, 000, we should start looking at those countries seriously," he said.
Asked if end-August or early September would be a good time to switch gears to the new normal - given that all who want to and are eligible for the jab would have been inoculated - Ong said this was a realistic timeframe, based on the country's vaccine supplies.
"What you would see is not a big-bang opening end of August or September, but a progressive one," he added.
The task force announced on June 24 that Singapore will transition to a new normal where Covid-19 will be managed like other endemic diseases.
Asked if this is a deviation from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech in May, when he spoke of ramping up vaccinations, contact tracing and testing, Ong clarified that this was not the case.
The key message of PM Lee's speech is that vaccination is the key to helping Singapore transit to the new normal, he said.
"We are in this transition phase of vaccinating more of our population... For us to arrive at a percentage that we are comfortable with, that transition process will take a month or two more. And during that phase, testing remains very important," said Ong, who noted that 37 per cent of the population is now fully vaccinated, with 57 per cent to 58 per cent partially vaccinated.
There are also other key considerations in transiting to living with endemic Covid-19, though the decision had been made based on science, he added.
After an extended period of restrictions, fatigue has set in, and there is a certain sense of battle weariness among people.
"You cannot expect people to live like that - restricting themselves, not meeting friends, not being able to travel," he said, noting that some have been apart from families, and that some workers have not been allowed to enter the country.
There are also other major considerations, such as the trajectory of the pandemic, as well as the development of the vaccines and treatments Singapore now has at its disposal that could make living with endemic Covid-19 a possibility.
While scientists estimate that a vaccination rate of at least 80 per cent is required for the population to gain herd immunity against the Delta variant, Mr Ong said that people can still live with an endemic Covid-19 if this is not achieved.
"People will still get infected, but they are fine. And so you make Covid-19 more like influenza, you don't make Covid-19 like measles, for example, where you try to eradicate (it)."
But masks will be among the last of measures that will be reviewed, Mr Ong said, noting that Israel has recently reintroduced a requirement to wear masks indoors amid a rise in coronavirus cases, just days after it lifted the measure.
"Masks, to me, are a very important non-pharmaceutical intervention, and will be one of the last things we want to consider removing," he said. Even if mask-wearing requirements are removed, this will perhaps be just for safer outdoor environments, such as parks, he said.
"In terms of risks and reward, it is one of the most sensible things to do." - The Straits Times/Asia News Network