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Covid-19 rules, use of TraceTogether, SafeEntry to be reviewed but not with hospitals still 'very busy': Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — At some point, the Covid-19 rules in Singapore must be relaxed further, with vaccination-differentiated safe management measures (VDS) stepped down, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (April 4).

Covid-19 rules, use of TraceTogether, SafeEntry to be reviewed but not with hospitals still 'very busy': Ong Ye Kung
  • Singapore will do away with vaccination-differentiated safe management measures at "some point", said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung
  • However, now is not the time as hospitals are busy dealing with the build up in "business as usual" cases
  • Mr Ong also said Singapore is some way from treating Covid-19 as endemic as the coronavirus is still spreading around the world and evolving

SINGAPORE — At some point, the Covid-19 rules in Singapore must be relaxed further, with vaccination-differentiated safe management measures (VDS) stepped down, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (April 4).

That way, businesses will not have to incur the cost of upholding these Covid-19 rules, and those who choose not to be vaccinated will have to bear the responsibility for their decisions, he added.

“I just do not think it is now, (because we) must have a care for healthcare workers at this point. They are still very busy,” said Mr Ong in response to a question from Member of Parliament (MP) Lim Biow Chuan of Mountbatten Single Member Constituency (SMC).

"At some point, the rules must be more relaxed, VDS will be stepped down, the cost is not being incurred by businesses and those who choose not to be vaccinated take the responsibility," he said.

Mr Ong said that in hospitals the “business as usual” workload has built up, and that chronic cases have become more serious.

He noted that about 3.5 per cent of the adult population is not vaccinated against Covid-19, and they account for more than one-fifth of patients requiring intensive care unit treatment and those who have died.

Mr Ong said it is "not quite" an equitable situation that "so many of us are doing so much to protect that 3.5 per cent".

However, he said while Covid-19 cases are coming down, hospitals remain "very busy" and are "not out of the woods" and the community should not be adding to the workload of healthcare workers at this point.

What we can wait for is for cases to go down further; for the hospital situation to be eased. Then we'll be in a position to review this and make the right decision.
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung

“SafeEntry is the most convenient way to check the vaccination status of an individual entering a premise. If we decide to do away with VDS, then there is no need for SafeEntry. As of now VDS is still needed,” said Mr Ong.

Mr Lim noted that healthcare workers have been trying to get the minority of unvaccinated individuals to change their minds, but with no success.

“So the question that many people have asked is when will all these (Covid-19 regulations) end?”

Reiterating an earlier point made by fellow MP Liang Eng Hwa of Bukit Panjang SMC, he said the regulations, such as SafeEntry checks, have come at a great inconvenience to both mall operators and shoppers.

“Surely, the Ministry of Health (MOH) ought to consider the principle of self-responsibility, which is that those who choose to be unvaccinated, they have to take the consequences of their action,” Mr Lim said.

Mr Ong agreed with Mr Lim that the percentage of vaccinated Singaporeans, now at about 97 per cent, is unlikely to see any major increases.

“What we can wait for is for cases to go down further; for the hospital situation to be eased. Then we'll be in a position to review this and make the right decision.”

Mr Ong added that with the current relaxation of Covid-19 rules, there will likely be an uptick in daily cases, though it is something the healthcare system should be able to “ride through without any major changes” in the public health posture.

Once cases subside further, Mr Ong said the authorities will consider further easing of the safe management measures, which could include reviewing distancing rules between tables in food and beverage settings.

REVIEWING TRACETOGETHER 

Touching on the relevance of the TraceTogether mobile application, Mr Ong said MOH no longer relies on it for contact tracing for the general public.

For instance, cases who self-test positive but are otherwise feeling well, do not need to upload their TraceTogether data as the Government relies on them to "do the responsible thing" by informing their close contacts and monitoring their own health.

Moreover, with the vast majority of the population vaccinated, coupled with Singapore's goal to live with Covid-19, there is no need to contact trace every case. 

That said, Mr Ong added that agencies that look after more vulnerable sectors such as schools or pre-schools, continue to use TraceTogether for contact tracing.

Further, he said the aggregated statistics generated by TraceTogether and SafeEntry give a good idea of the settings that are more susceptible to transmission of the Covid-19 virus. 

"So on the whole, the costs and benefits of TraceTogether change, as we make further progress in living with Covid-19," said Mr Ong.

The Government’s multi-ministry Covid-19 task force will "therefore review its relevance and application to stand it down when it is no longer needed, while maintaining the capability to restart should we encounter a more dangerous variant of concern," said Mr Ong. 

SOME WAY FROM ENDEMICITY

Associate Professor Jamus Lim, MP for Sengkang Group Representation Constituency, then asked if MOH is looking at specific milestones or quantitative triggers that will bring about further easing of safe management measures.

Mr Ong said the Covid-19 task force has always tried to avoid the approach that many countries have taken — for example, opening up the economy when the country has reached a certain level of vaccination status — because the coronavirus has proven “over and over again” to be unpredictable.

He added that the task force would rather not tie their hands that way, but look at the entire situation that includes how hospitals are coping, as well as the number of severe Covid-19 cases.

“So far, that has served us well. We tighten up when we have to, to keep everyone safe, and we also eased up when we could, letting economic and social activities resume as normally as possible.”

Assoc Prof Lim had also asked if Covid-19 can be treated like influenza at some point, as an endemic disease.

Mr Ong said this is the objective of the task force and that Singapore is making good progress.

“However (on) what endemicity means, it does not mean that we treat Covid-19 as if it is not there. It is in fact the opposite because endemicity means the disease is constantly there, circulating at a rate that is more predictable and not likely to disrupt normal lives.”

Like influenza, which kills tens of thousands of people every year, Mr Ong said Singapore will need to continue to take precaution and adopt appropriate safe management measures in order to manage the risk and the damage from Covid-19.

“We are still some way to treating Covid-19 as an endemic disease because the virus is still circulating around the world and evolving,” he said, adding that there is a risk of it mutating into something more dangerous.

“So while we have eased up the safe management measures and reopened our borders, the pandemic crisis is not over. We will have to continue to monitor the local and global situation,” said Mr Ong.

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coronavirus COVID-19 safe management measures Ong Ye Kung

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