Study the data first, experts say

PETALING JAYA: Malaysians should be able to look forward to a relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions only when the majority of the population has been vaccinated, say health experts.

Prof Dr Moy Foong Ming of Universiti Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine said loosened restrictions could be considered when most of the country’s population has been vaccinated.

She said an example of eased restrictions could be allowing gatherings of certain sizes, such as during religious services, weddings and sporting events.

Other incentives that could be looked into, she added, were tax rebates or discount cards for groceries.

She, however, stressed that this should only come when at least 50% of the population had been fully vaccinated.

“I do not think the restrictions should be relaxed now or in the very near future when the daily cases, infectivity rates, R-value, hospitalisation rates and ICU (intensive care unit) usage are at critical levels.

“Fully vaccinated people can still get infected with mild symptoms and they may infect others who are not vaccinated,” she said.

As at Thursday, about 33.4% of Malaysia’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine while 15.6% of the people in the country are fully vaccinated.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Sabri Yaakob recently said that interstate travel for fully vaccinated long-distance couples and families were among the considerations for the relaxed restrictions that would be announced in due course.

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said decisions to relax restrictions should be taken after all data that had been compiled show that the vaccinations have been effective.

“To this end, data on the rate of disease transmission among the vaccinated and unvaccinated needs to be released by the authorities.

“Only then can we decide on the relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions. Otherwise, we may risk causing a rise in infection rates,” he added.

The Independent Covid-19 Vaccination Advisory Committee, which Dr Awang heads, has always maintained that non-pharmaceutical interventions should remain in place until some degree of population-level immunity has been shown.

“We should not be too hasty in removing restrictions until we are sure that we are on the right track.

“We need to temper our expectations of a ‘normal’ life with preparations for a long, drawn-out battle with Covid-19,” he said.

Vaccination rates, he added, remained largely uneven across the country, with high 14-day incidence density in states such as Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya.

“They are also the ones with very high bed occupancy rates for Covid-19, which points to extreme strain on their healthcare capacities.

“Fortunately, they are also the ones which are ramping up their vaccination rates, but it will take time to see the effect as the proportion of those who have received two doses is still not high enough except for Labuan and Putrajaya,” he said.

Many countries have also looked at relaxing Covid-19 restrictions after a large portion of their population has been inoculated.

With about 65% of Phuket’s population fully vaccinated at the end of June, Thailand announced a “sandbox scheme” to open the island to foreign tourists without requiring them to be quarantined.

If successful, the Thai government is likely to open other tourist hotspots such as Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.

In Singapore, restrictions were originally expected to be eased on July 12, with the group size for dine-ins increased to five and wedding receptions allowed to resume.

This was after two-thirds of Singapore’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

However, with recent outbreaks emerging from karaoke lounges and a fishery port, the Singaporean authorities have now tightened measures, including banning dine-ins.

Travel restrictions have been lifted somewhat in Europe, especially with the launch of the EU Digital Covid Certificate that shows whether a person is vaccinated or has tested negative.

Travellers entering Germany must show that they are either fully vaccinated or fully recovered or have tested negative prior to departure.

England has lifted most of its Covid-19 restrictions on its so-called “Freedom Day” on July 19, with nightclubs reopening and people no longer required to wear masks.

Fully vaccinated British travellers returning from medium-risk countries are also no longer required to quarantine.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to loosen restrictions more gradually.

Israel scrapped most of its restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing, after it jabbed a large portion of its population, but reintroduced mask-wearing after cases saw an increase.

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