The B1617 variant of COVID-19 prevalent in South Asia is “not just a Singapore problem” but a “global concern” as highlighted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), said the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a Facebook post on Saturday (15 May).
The statement was issued by MOH in response to media queries on the number of imported COVID-19 cases who were short term visitors.
Newly appointed Health Minister Ong Ye Kung took over the Ministry on Saturday – the third ministry he has helmed in his political career – following the cabinet reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 23 April.
According to MOH, the number of imported COVID-19 cases in South Asia over the past 28 days was 271, with 50.2 per cent are Singaporeans or Permanent Residents (PRs).
Of the 271 imported cases, 46.5 per cent were work pass holders, student pass holders, or dependents, and 3.3 per cent were short term visitors.
“The B.1.617 variant prevalent in South Asia is not just a Singapore problem. The World Health Organization has deemed it a variant of global concern.
“According to the Gisaid Institute, Europe has sequenced almost 2,000 B.1.617 infections, US 486, Australia 85, Japan 29 and China 17.
“This is a major reason why transmission is rising throughout Asia — in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan. Even hitherto safe regions, such as Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam, are experiencing outbreaks of community cases,” said the Ministry.
MOH stated that these cases are imported because “all borders are porous”, adding that “all it takes is one case to cause an outbreak and no country can seal itself off totally”.
“At the minimum, citizens and residents must be allowed to return home,” it remarked.
For imported cases in Singapore, the Ministry revealed that there are about 409 imported cases over the past 28 days from 16 April to 13 May, with 41.6 per cent of them were Singaporeans or PRs.
In addition, 50.6 per cent of them were work pass holders, student pass holders, or dependents, and 7.8 per cent were short term visitors.
“All short term visitors are allowed to enter only if they have family ties here, or on specific compassionate grounds such as to attend a funeral, or seek medical treatment,” said MOH, adding that every arrival is subject to stringent Stay-Home-Notice (SHN) and tests.
The Ministry noted that community transmission has occurred because the virus breached the nation’s safety measures, including at Changi Airport.
“The infiltrating virus can be from SC/PR/work pass holders or a short term visitor. This is a challenge faced by all countries because no one can entirely close their borders,” it asserted.
MOH, however, did not specify the number of cases that contracted the B1617 variant in Singapore.
Meanwhile, many netizens commented on MOH’s Facebook post saying that the statement sounds “defensive” when it was the Government that has refused to shut the borders to begin with.
One netizen noted that the MOH should “just apologise” and admit its errors instead of “trying to justify it”.
“It is worrisome when there seems to be a certain unwarranted defensiveness on your side,” the user wrote.
Another netizen commented that MOH seems “aggressively defensive” in its statement, and asked why it even allowed short term visitors to visit families in Singapore amid the ongoing pandemic, even though “several coming purely for holiday visits”.
“As for the new measure to segregate arrivals from high risk countries at the airport why wasn’t this done much earlier? Mistakes have clearly been made in the handling of this spread and planning needs to be much more proactive and not reactive,” said the netizen.
Another user highlighted that visitors from India were allowed to “indiscriminately visit” families in Singapore, while Malaysians working in Singapore are not allowed to cross borders to see their families due to the pandemic.
“Talk about double standards and preferential treatment,” the netizen wrote.
A handful of netizens raised questions as to why the Ministry would even allow citizens or PRs to travel to high-risk countries before returning to Singapore again, without providing any “urgent reasons”.