Transitioning from COVID-19 pandemic to endemic will require a “psychological shift”, vaccination is key: Ong Ye Kung

Vaccination is key to Singapore’s transition into an endemic COVID-19 state, which is still in its “very early stage”, said the Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung on Monday (5 July) in a written reply to several parliamentary questions.

Questions asked by various members of parliament regarding this transition from pandemic to endemic status include the changes to safe management measures, whether the government intends to follow through on its promise to wind down the TraceTogether data collection programme, and the further thresholds for imposing nationwide restrictions.

Parliamentary Questions

Ms Foo Mee Har: To ask the Minister for Health (a) what changes to safe management measures can the public expect when the COVID-19 situation transitions from ‘pandemic’ to ‘endemic’ status, particularly in healthcare, community, business and travel sectors; and (b) what are the criteria that will indicate such a transition.

Mr Leong Mun Wai: To ask the Minister for Health how does the Government intend to follow through on its promise to wind down the TraceTogether data collection programme in light of its announcement that the COVID-19 virus is expected to become endemic.

Ms He Ting Ru: To ask the Minister for Health (a) whether the Multi-Ministry Task Force will make public the full set of metrics and circumstances that will trigger movements between each phase of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions; (b) what are the public health benchmarks for moving between the pandemic control phases; and (c) whether there will be a fixed phase system for restriction levels in the future.

Mr Cheng Hsing Yao: To ask the Minister for Health in view of COVID-19 becoming endemic (a) what will be the future threshold for imposing nationwide restrictions such as another Phase 2 (Heightened Alert); and (b) what must Singapore do to mentally prepare for life in this new normal.

In a written answer, Mr Ong outlined the factors it has taken into consideration in shaping its approach to COVID-19 such as the number of infection cases, the trajectory of the pandemic, whether the infections are linked or unlinked, testing capacity, and more recently, the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated. Also considered is the psychology of people in Singapore.

“Along the way, our policies are continually adjusted to ensure that the number of cases do not rise exponentially, causing our healthcare system to be overwhelmed because that will cause a lot of harm to many patients,” he noted.

Mr Ong went on to say that while he understands the desire for a definitive roadmap on Singapore’s approach, he doesn’t think it is a “realistic approach” given the uncertainties of the pandemic and the evolution of the virus.

As such, he asserted: “A major factor determining the pace and extent of the transition is vaccination.”

In line with that, Mr Ong specified two milestones. Those are having 50 per cent of the country’s population to be vaccinated by the second half of July, and two thirds by National Day.

“We are planning our transition and public health measures around these milestones,” said Mr Ong, “If we are confident enough to be more definitive, we will, and will announce our plans publicly.”

As to when specific measures will be reviewed, including the winding down of TraceTogether, Mr Ong said that there are several significant transition points to look at.

“When we imagine endemic COVID-19 and achieving normalcy, these significant changes may not come across our minds,” he explained.

“For example, we need to review how we want to treat individuals who are infected with COVID-19, whether they need to be hospitalised or can recover at home.

We need to review the relevance of contact tracing and quarantine, and the focus and extent of testing for COVID-19.

“We will have to explore opportunities to open up quarantine-free travel corridors with countries and regions that are safe.

“We need to review the timing for winding down TraceTogether, monitoring and reporting the  number of people who falls very sick as opposed to daily infections, and reducing mask wearing requirements.”

Noting that these are “significant departures” from the practices in place for a COVID-pandemic that the country is accustomed to, Mr Ong said that each change would require a “psychological shift”.

“We have to study each move closely, implement them progressively and when appropriate,” he cautioned.

“Just like fighting the COVID-pandemic, the transition to endemic COVID-19 will also need to be a whole-of-society effort, of all stakeholders working together, each person doing his or her part, and trusting each other,” said Mr Ong.

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