Singapore is “fully plugged into the world” with trade and travel being its lifeblood, which is why its borders cannot remain closed over a prolonged duration, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong who is also co-chair of the Multi Ministry Task Force on COVID-10.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday (11 May), Mr Wong answered several questions from various MPs on the country’s border control measures and efforts to curb further spread of COVID-19 in the country.
Mr Wong explained that as the country exited its circuit breaker period last year when borders were fully shut, travel restrictions were listed in a “controlled and safe manner”.
“For example, we put in place a system of regular testing for those working at the checkpoints and borders. We prioritized vaccinations for them and those working in our stay home notice [SHN] facilities, the hotels,” said Mr Wong.
“So vaccination rates are now above 90% for aviation and maritime and 85% for the SHN facilities.”
Mr Wong also noted that testing protocols were ramped up with pre-departure and on-arrival PCR tests as well as a stricter SHN regime and ensuring that hotels and facilities used for SHN have proper infection control and security measures.
“We also continue to update the SHN regime to respond to the evolving public health situation here and abroad,” he added.
As to suggestions from the floor to extend SHN requirements from 14 days to21 days, Mr Wong said that this was initially done for incoming construction, marine and process (CMP) workers who would be living and working in high risk settings.
This group of arrivals are required to serve 14 days in a SHN facility followed by another seven days in the migrant worker onboarding centres, said the minister.
Additionally, a 21-day SHN is also applied for arrivals few countries where the variant strains of COVID-19 have originated from—the United Kingdom, South Africa, and India.
However, Mr Wong also noted that now the strains are circulating all over the world, making it increasing difficult to just target countries of origin.
He continued, “Now, I should clarify, there is still no medical evidence that the new variants have a longer incubation period. But variant or not, there is always a very small tail risk of such long incubation cases.
“And that’s why we have moved recently to a tighter 21-day SHN regime for travellers from all higher-risk countries during this period of heightened alert.”
On the question of whether vaccinated citizens and permanent residents (PRs) who travel abroad could be allowed to serve out SHN in their own homes, Mr Wong said: “At this stage we prefer to take a more cautious approach and have all travellers from higher risk countries serve their SHN in dedicated facilities.”
As for questions on business travellers being allowed into the country without serving SHN, Mr Wong said a small group of such travellers are allowed in for “essential work reasons”.
“We control the risk tightly by keeping the numbers small and requiring them to adhere strictly to a control itinerary,” he explained, adding, “We also subject them to frequent testing while they are in Singapore to ensure they are free from the virus.”
Tight control on overall flow of incoming travellers
One of the major concerns recently have been the rise in imported COVID-19 cases in Singapore, which sparked calls for borders to be closed.
Mr Wong noted in his response in parliament that the overall flow of travellers coming into Singapore is controlled very tightly, and described it as a “dynamic process” where travel flows are adjusted regularly based on assessment of the public health situation.
“Once we observe any deterioration in any country or region, we will throttle down the numbers and impose stricter border restrictions for that country or region,” he said.
He then referred to the recent deteriorating situation in India as an example.
“In April, we reduced entry approvals for long-term pass holders, and short-term visitors from India. Later, we moved to ban all travellers from India, and this ban was extended to the entire South Asian region from the start of May.”
Mr Wong went on to illustrate the stark difference in numbers of incoming travellers now compared to pre-COVID times. Back then, Singapore saw roughly 200,000 travellers coming through Change Airport each day, both entering Singapore and in transit.
That figure plummeted during the circuit breaker when the country’s borders were temporarily shut.
As travel restrictions eased, there were about 820 arrivals per day by November 2020.
“Between December and March this year, the figure has been stable at about 1,200 arrivals per day,” he added, noting that one reason for this is the increase in arrival of migrant workers for the CMP sector and foreign domestic workers (FDWs).
“This group was also the largest contributor to our imported cases,” he noted, accounting for about 40 percent of the imported cases over the recent six months.
Even so, Mr Wong reassured the House that tighter screening and quarantine processes were implemented for these incoming travellers so that COVID-19 cases detected among them were already serving SHN and therefore were not in contact with the community.
Not enough CMP workers for country’s needs
Mr Wong then went on to noted that even with the increased inflow of CMP workers allowed up to now, there is still a shortage of manpower as many migrant workers in the country have left and continue to leave Singapore for their home countries.
Mr Wong said of companies applying for passes for new workers: “The application backlog has been building up significantly even before we enforced the latest set of travel restrictions on the South Asian region, and now the manpower crunch has worsened.”
The Minister went on to describe what tighter border measures would mean for Singapore and Singaporeans.
For example, he said that contractors would be hit hard, resulting in delays of building projects and that “we can expect many new BTO projects to be delayed by one year or more.”
Similarly, private home buyers may also face delays of varying lengths.
Additionally, companies in the marine and process sectors will be badly affected as well as they struggled to deliver existing projects on time and may have to forgot new opportunities and projects.
Mr Wong warned, “The manpower shortage will not be confined to the CMP sector. It will have a cascading effect on the whole economy.”
He explained, “The waiting time for any entry approval could be more than six months, and our big concern is that if companies continue to face difficulties or forced to close, we could then end up with higher unemployment and job losses for Singaporeans.”
Apart from that, Mr Wong warned that it would be difficult on families as well.
“Singaporeans will find it harder to reunite with their families abroad and families applying for new foreign domestic workers to care for their children or elderly will have to wait for at least two months.”
“These are the consequences of keeping our borders tight and I hope members in this house will help to explain these to your constituents when you receive appeals, be it to shut our borders completely or to relax the restrictions to allow their workers or foreign domestic workers to come in,” he added.