As the number of COVID-19 community cases continues to rise in Singapore, sparking concerns that another circuit breaker might be on the horizon, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Sunday (16 May) that further monitoring by local authorities is needed before such a move is decided on at a later date.
On Sunday, Singapore reported 38 new community cases, 18 of which are unlinked. On top of that, there were also 11 imported cases, bringing the total of the day to 49. It is the highest daily number of new COVID-19 infections reported since 14 Apr last year.
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said at a press conference on Sunday that the Government will “need to monitor the situation and then come to a decision later” before possibly reintroducing the circuit breaker.
Responding to a question from CNA, Mr Ong said: “You can see the cases rising and whether the trajectory goes exponentially up or flatten – which did happen (during) Chinese New Year this year, we saw cases going up and then it flattened and then it disappeared – which direction it goes, we will only know in the coming days.“
“So all I can say is as of now, we need to monitor the situation and then come to a decision later.”
“Mutant virus” from “higher risk countries” broken through airport
Mr Ong also acknowledged that a “mutant virus” from “higher risk countries” has broken through despite the best efforts of those working at Changi Airport to avoid the spread of the virus.
“I think they really did their best but unfortunately this mutant virus, very virulent, broke through the layers of defense,” he said.
Mr Ong added that from the first 20-over infections, Changi Airport had found that the infections were “quite congregated around one zone”.
“This is the zone with a finger pier that receive higher risk countries’ arrivals, including South Asia. And then the conveyor belt and immigration,” he said.
“So, that whole zone and infections were all around that area … That zone is our equivalent of ward 9D, like Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and from that zone, workers go have their lunch, go have their meals at the Terminal 3 basement 2 commercial areas and the food court,” Mr Ong added.
“And we suspect from there, it transmitted to members of public that visited the place.”
Minister assured Parliament of measures to facilitate travellers from countries with higher infection rates
This has prompted the public to question the Government’s decision to keep its borders open to high-risk countries such as India even though it had been warned of the potential risks of continuing to do so.
When India’s current surge in cases first occurred, many countries — from the United States to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — were quick to ban the flights from India to mitigate the spread of the virus within their borders.
However, Singapore only tightened its borders to incoming flights from certain countries in South Asia only about a week later.
At the time, the Government had been reiterating that it would implement stricter measures for arriving travellers including longer quarantine periods as well as more regular testing.
It was echoing the message it had set out in October last year on reopening Singapore’s borders.
Mr Ong, then-Transport Minister, spoke in Parliament on the recovery of the aviation sector last year and mentioned several measures that had been developed to aid the process including the Reciprocal Green Lane and increased testing capacities.
Mr Ong said: “The Multi-Ministry Taskforce will explore other practical schemes. And this is especially important for travellers from countries which are economically important to us, but with higher infection rates.”
“There are ways to facilitate these travellers to come to Singapore while managing the risk of virus transmission,” he assured the house.
Citing how the 14-day Stay Home Notice (SHN) requirement will deter most travellers from wanting to come to Singapore, Mr Ong said that these visits have to be facilitated “without such onerous restriction.”
Therefore, he reasoned Singapore has to “facilitate the visits without such an onerous restriction”.
“For example, we can replace the 14-day SHN in a hotel with new requirements, such as a more stringent and a repeated test protocol (arrival, 3 days later, 5 days later, 7 days later – we will study that), segregation from the rest of the community (a process we call, ‘bubble wrapping’), and we can closely track of their movements while they are here,” he explained.
Mr Ong emphasised, “The message we want to send to the world is this – Singapore has started to re-open its borders. In the near future, if you have the virus under control and infection rates are as low as Singapore’s, you are welcome to visit us, but travellers will be subject to a COVID-19 test, as a precaution.“
Despite those reassurances, it appears that imported cases are still crossing Singapore’s borders and this could have very well led to the increase in community cases.
Now, the Minister would probably not have taken this stance in hindsight, had he known the position Singapore would find itself now — in a virtual lockdown again after the Taskforce’s previous experience last year, where Singapore experienced a spike of community cases due to imported cases.
Ong said schools remained safe; transitioned to home-based learning just a month later
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Mr Ong has been forced to retreat from a previous position.
Back in March last year, Mr Ong, who was then the Education Minister, has said that schools remained a safe place for children with the implementation of “significant additional precautionary measures”. He said this a day before schools were due to reopen after the March holidays.
Just a month later as Singapore entered its circuit breaker period, all schools were shut down and moved to home-based learning instead. Back then, Singapore saw about 50 new cases per day, many of which were unlinked.
Ong: Transportation can be kept “very safe”
On a different note, one of Mr Ong’s last stances taken in his capacity as Transport Minister prior to being appointed as Health Minister was that public transportation can be kept “very safe” via various precautions including replenishing the air in MRT trains every six minutes and mandating passengers to keep on their masks on during the commute.
He said this on 14 May, the same day that the MOH announced tighter measures after the spike in COVID-19 community cases. The measures, labelled Phase 2, is set for 16 May to 13 Jun where dining in at eateries will not be allowed, including indoor and outdoor food courts and hawker centres.
Group gatherings have been reduced from five to two; social gatherings are allowed up to twice per day; work-from-home is now the default arrangement again, and no social gathering at allowed at workplaces; capacity at houses of worship is reduced to only 50 attendees without pre-event testing and up to 1,000 with pre-event testing.
The list goes on.
Essentially, Singapore is back on heightened alert and will have to endure stricter regulations with regards to various daily social and economic activities.
As Mr Ong puts it, the Government will have to monitor the situation so as to decide whether to impose a new round of the circuit breaker — we wonder if Mr Ong will have to eat his words again.