SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): The relaxation of social measures will be paused, and travellers entering Singapore will face stricter rules from 11.59pm on Thursday (Dec 2), as the country acts to buy time amid the spread of the new Omicron variant around the world.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Tuesday (Nov 30) that while no cases of Omicron - found in South Africa last week - have been detected locally, the pre-emptive measures are needed for Singapore to assess the implications of the new variant. They will also help to reduce the risk of importation of the virus.
From 11.59pm on Thursday, air travellers arriving on the quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme will have to undergo supervised, self-administered antigen rapid tests at a Quick Test Centre on days three and seven of their arrival.
Currently, these travellers have to take a Covid-19 swab test only prior to their departure for Singapore and after arrival here.
Second, all air travellers entering, transferring or transiting through Singapore must have tested negative in a pre-departure test within two days of leaving for Singapore.
Currently, travellers from Hong Kong, Macau, China and Taiwan are not required to take pre-departure tests, and need to take a Covid-19 swab test only upon arrival. These places are in Category I of MOH's risk classification framework, which means they have the lowest risk of Covid-19 infections.
Third, all travellers must take a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on arrival. This will affect non-VTL travellers entering Singapore who are not from Hong Kong, Macau, China and Taiwan. Currently, they do not have to take a test upon arrival, but have to be tested before the end of their stay-home notice period.
MOH said that it will also conduct a one-time PCR testing exercise for surveillance purposes, for travellers who arrived in Singapore between Nov 12 and 27, and had been to the countries or regions affected by Omicron in the 14 days before their arrival.
These travellers have been notified of their scheduled test time and venue, said MOH, asking for the understanding and cooperation of affected travellers for the testing exercise.
On the freezing of both VTLs and relaxation of social measures, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said: "This is a prudent thing to do for now when we are faced with a major uncertainty."
News of the Omicron variant, which is assessed by the World Health Organisation to have a "very high" global risk, has in the past two days triggered Japan and Israel to announce plans to close their borders to foreigners.
The variant has many more mutations than the Delta Covid-19 variant and has sparked concerns among health authorities worldwide, though the impact of the mutations are still being investigated by scientists.
MOH said Singapore needs to buy time to learn more about the variant as some of the mutations found in the variant's genome, previously found in other variants, were known to enhance transmissibility and reduce vaccine efficacy.
"In terms of vaccine efficacy, early data suggests that current vaccines should remain effective against severe disease and death. However, more studies are needed to understand the actual impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines and treatments," MOH added.
MOH noted that there has been a rapid increase in the proportion of cases that are infected by the Omicron variant in South Africa. It also said more countries have reported cases over the last few days, suggesting that the variant has spread globally.
It added that Singapore's community would have some protection against this new variant.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force, said: "Very little is known yet about this variant with regard to its transmissibility and severity, and how effective vaccines are against it.
"We are closely monitoring the situation, and scientists around the world are working on it."
These tightened restrictions will be in place for four weeks. They will be reviewed or extended if necessary, said MOH.
There are now 18 countries from which vaccinated travellers can enter Singapore without quarantine, following the launch of the new VTLs on Monday.
VTLs for six other countries - Thailand, Cambodia, Fiji, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Turkey - will start around the middle of December.
But three other planned VTLs for Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been postponed indefinitely as a precautionary measure to reduce the risks of importing the Omicron variant to Singapore.
MOH said on Tuesday that cases confirmed or suspected to be infected with the Omicron variant will not be allowed to undergo home recovery, and instead be conveyed to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases for isolation and management.
It will also conduct full contact tracing for these cases to identify their close contacts, place them on a 10-day quarantine at government quarantine facilities instead of allowing self-isolation at home, and conduct PCR testing at the start and at the end of their quarantine.
"We are introducing a set of measures that serves as a strong yet reasonable response to the new variant to protect our local community," said MOH.
"We will continue to monitor and evaluate data on the Omicron variant as it emerges and adjust our border and domestic measures accordingly."