Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Singapore to enter Phase 3 of Re-Opening on 28 Dec 2020, says PM Lee in nationwide address; COVID-19 vaccines will be free for Singaporeans

Social gathering size to be raised to 8; higher capacity at places of worship, attractions
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Singapore will enter phase three of its reopening in two weeks, on Dec 28, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

The permitted group size for social gatherings will go up from five to eight, with capacity limits at attractions, malls and places of worship also set to be increased.

But even as Singaporeans take the chance to reconnect with friends and family, they must continue to keep their guard up as the battle is far from won, PM Lee emphasised in a televised national address.

Around the world, the pandemic is still raging and many countries are seeing recurrent waves of infection with record numbers of daily cases, he said. "The Covid-19 virus has not been eradicated. There is a long way to go."

The increased limits on social gatherings will allow households to receive up to eight visitors at a time. Attractions can start applying to the Singapore Tourism Board to increase their operating capacity to up to 65 per cent, while religious organisations will be able to hold worship services for up to 250 people, split up into groups of 50.

Rules will also be relaxed for marriage solemnisations and live performances.


PM Lee expressed his gratitude to Singaporeans, who have complied with the spirit of the rules imposed to keep Covid-19 at bay.


"With everyone's full support, our enhanced safeguards worked, and we could gradually ease our restrictions. We can be proud of how far we have come."

But PM Lee also stressed that the longer Singapore's borders stay closed to travellers, the greater the country's risk of losing out as an international hub, which will hurt Singaporeans' livelihoods.


Singapore must, therefore, reopen its borders in a "controlled and safe manner", with the knowledge that it will see more imported cases which could spread to the community.


He added that the virus is likely still circulating silently within the Singapore community, and Singaporeans should continue to be watchful and cautious.

"This is absolutely not the time to relax, and let our guard down or to hold a big party, imagining that the problem has disappeared," PM Lee said.


The multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic elaborated on some of the announcements PM Lee made, and also gave an update on migrant workers.

Workers in some dormitories will be allowed back into the community once a month, as part of a pilot scheme. To do so, these workers will have to undergo rostered routine testing, wear contact tracing devices and comply with safe living measures.

Rounding up the press conference that was broadcast live, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said the risk of infection will go up as more people are allowed to gather, and more social and economic activities resume.

"That means the enforcement, the discipline has to be strengthened and tightened so we can continue to contain the risk and keep the number of cases as low as possible, so we can have a smooth and safe journey through phase three," he added.





























COVID-19 vaccines will be free for Singaporeans and long-term residents; vaccination recommended but voluntary for adults
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Free Covid-19 vaccinations will be offered to all Singaporeans and long-term residents who are currently here, though they will be voluntary, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Those who are at greatest risk will be given first priority, including healthcare workers and front-line personnel, as well as the elderly and vulnerable, he said in a televised address.

"Thereafter, the committee proposes to progressively vaccinate the rest of the population, and to cover everyone who wants a vaccination by the end of next year," said PM Lee.


In a vote of confidence in the Singapore experts who have already given their approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, PM Lee added that he and his colleagues in Cabinet will be getting vaccinated early. PM Lee, who is 68, said: "This is to show you, especially seniors like me, that we believe the vaccines are safe."


His assurance comes as he announced yesterday that the Health Sciences Authority has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for pandemic use.


More vaccines will become available in the months ahead, he said, adding that if all goes to plan, Singapore will have enough vaccines for everyone here by the third quarter of next year.


PM Lee said the Government has been working to secure vaccine doses for its population since early in the pandemic.

He noted that while more than 200 vaccine candidates were being developed, not all would succeed.

"We started talking to the pharmaceutical companies early to understand the science, and identify the promising candidates and vaccines likely to reach production soon," said PM Lee.

Singapore has set aside more than $1 billion for this, and had signed advance purchase agreements and made early down payments for the most promising candidates, including with Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Sinovac.


The Republic had also made arrangements with pharmaceutical companies to facilitate their clinical trials and drug development in Singapore, and attracted a few to establish vaccine manufacturing capabilities here.

Citing Singapore's own efforts to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, PM Lee said this gave scientists and researchers here the opportunity to do cutting-edge work.

Early-stage clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine co-developed by Duke-NUS Medical School and American biotechnology company Arcturus Therapeutics are currently ongoing.

"It was also insurance, in case the global supply chain was disrupted," PM Lee said. "This way, we built up a diversified portfolio of options to ensure that Singapore would be near the front of the queue for vaccines, and not last in line."


While vaccinations are voluntary, PM Lee urged people here to get vaccinated when one is offered to them. "The more of us (that) are vaccinated, the harder it will be for the virus to spread, and the safer we will all be as a society," he said.


MOH's director of medical services Kenneth Mak said at a virtual press conference yesterday that while a vaccine will expedite recovery from the pandemic, it will take some time before the world returns to a pre-Covid-19 normalcy.

"Safe distancing and safe management measures continue to be critical until such a time when sufficient numbers of our population are protected," he said.



















Health Sciences Authority (HSA) okays use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, will keep monitoring safety
First shipments of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Singapore by end-Dec 2020; enough vaccines for all by Q3 2021
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) yesterday approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Singapore, and said it will keep monitoring it to ensure that it continues to be safe for use.

"We will draw on our network of healthcare professionals and international regulatory counterparts, as well as use data analytics, to enable us to detect early safety signals," said Associate Professor Chan Cheng Leng, group director of HSA's health products regulation group.

"This will enable HSA to take swift regulatory actions should any safety concern emerge."

For instance, as a condition for the interim authorisation, HSA said Pfizer and BioNTech are required to monitor the longer-term efficacy of the vaccine to determine the duration of protection against Covid-19.

This will supplement the available data which shows that the vaccine is effective for at least two months, with no signs of waning protection, HSA said.


The firms must also follow up on the safety of the vaccine for a longer period to determine its full safety profile, and study the safety of the vaccine in sub-populations such as in pregnant women and children.

"The companies must continue submitting the longer-term follow-up data to HSA to assure the continued effectiveness and safety of the vaccine," the authority said in a statement yesterday.

"HSA will actively review the data to ensure that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh the known risks," it said, adding that it may terminate its use if, for example, the benefits no longer outweigh the risks.


The first shipment of the vaccine is expected to arrive here by the end of this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

This makes Singapore one of the first countries to obtain this vaccine, he added. Other vaccines are expected to arrive here in the coming months. "If all goes according to plan, we will have enough vaccines for everyone in Singapore by the third quarter of 2021," PM Lee said.


Britain was the first country to approve the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec 2. Since then, Canada, the United States and Mexico are among those that have also approved the use of this vaccine.

The approvals come after US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech released last month the final results from the late-stage trial of the Covid-19 vaccine.


The findings showed that their vaccine was 95 per cent effective in preventing a person from getting ill from the coronavirus.

This vaccine efficacy was observed to be consistent across different age groups 16 years and older in over 40,000 clinical trial participants, whose ages ranged from 16 to 91 years, said the HSA.

But the authority said certain groups of people, such as those with a history of anaphylaxis, or the rapid onset of severe allergic reactions, should not receive the vaccine as a precautionary measure.

Pregnant women, immunocompromised persons and those under the age of 16 should also not receive the vaccine as the safety and efficacy data on these groups of people is not available yet.










Singaporeans urged to stay vigilant and abide by rules to curb virus
PM Lee Hsien Loong calls on people to keep up efforts in final stretch to defeat Covid-19, not let guard down
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has an important message for Singaporeans as they gear up for phase three of the country's reopening: Stay cautious and vigilant, continue to cooperate with the Government and abide by the rules to keep the virus at bay.

"Please do not abandon your mindset of watchfulness and caution," he urged them yesterday in a televised national address.

"This is absolutely not the time to relax, and let our guard down or to hold a big party, imagining that the problem has disappeared."


In his speech, PM Lee announced that Singapore will start phase three of its reopening on Dec 28, with the cap on group sizes for social gatherings raised from five to eight.

He also said the first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines will arrive by the end of this month. There will be enough for everyone in Singapore to get the jab by the third quarter of next year if things go according to plan, he added.

Vaccinations will be free for all Singaporeans and long-term residents who wish to take them.

"Now that vaccines are becoming available, we can see light at the end of the tunnel," PM Lee said. "As vaccinations become widespread not only in Singapore, but also in our region and the world, we can look forward to resuming more normal lives."

At a virtual press conference after PM Lee's address, Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng compared Singapore's achievements so far to a mountaineer reaching the base camp of a mountain, with the ascent to the summit still lying ahead.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, on the other hand, called it the final stretch of a marathon.

"This final stretch is still going to be a long one, and it is probably going to be the most difficult part of the race," he said.

"So, we really need to stay disciplined and focused all the way through the end."

Mr Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic, was also at the session.

PM Lee, in his national broadcast, noted that it has been nearly a year - "full of ups and downs, filled with anxiety and trepidation" - since Singapore's first Covid-19 case on Jan 23.

But much has changed in the last few months, he said.

The country, for one thing, has brought the daily number of new cases down from more than 1,000 in March and April to zero locally transmitted cases on most days.

When the crisis started, people were also worried about supermarkets having enough supplies, and parents were apprehensive about sending their children to school.

Now, supermarket shelves are full and shopping is calm and uneventful, PM Lee noted. The school year has been kept intact, and life is more normal than it was during the two-month circuit breaker period.

"How did we bring things under control? It took a tremendous effort and some good luck."

He said the tough measures to tackle the virus worked, and Singaporeans showed resilience and took them in their stride.

"Our economy took a big hit, but we did not let it crash," he added. "Despite the global economic dislocation, most of our workers kept their jobs."

Now, Singapore's defences against Covid-19 are much stronger, he said, citing how the country has built up its testing procedures and capacities, with rostered routine testing of higher risk groups and antigen rapid tests at larger gatherings and events.

It has also beefed up its contact tracing capabilities, such as expanding the SafeEntry and TraceTogether programmes.

"We got used to the inconvenient restrictions, and found ways to carry on with life," PM Lee said. "We looked after one another, reminding each other to adhere to safe distancing, to wear masks, to see a doctor if ill, and so on."

He also expressed his gratitude to Singaporeans who complied with the spirit of the rules, adding: "We can be proud of how far we have come."

Rounding up his speech, PM Lee said Singapore reacted quickly and comprehensively during the crisis, marshalling resources to solve its problems and staying resilient.

The situation is stable now only because everyone has worked so hard and sacrificed so much, he added.

"Let us keep up our efforts in this final stretch, to cross the finish line together and complete our mission to defeat Covid-19."



















Singapore to play crucial role in transporting Covid-19 vaccines around the world: PM Lee
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

As a global aviation hub, Singapore will play a crucial role in transporting Covid-19 vaccines around the world, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In a televised address yesterday on the next steps for the nation, PM Lee outlined how Singapore is well positioned to handle large volumes of vaccines, which he said will support "our recovery in more ways than one".

He noted that the vaccines would require cold chain management, as they must be transported in a temperature-controlled environment at every stage of their journey.

For example, the Pfizer vaccine would have to be stored at minus 70 deg C, which, PM Lee noted, was colder than the Arctic.

"This requires infrastructure, high standards, skilled personnel, and good connectivity to many different countries and all along the supply chain," he said.

Fortunately, Singapore has a strong ecosystem for cargo handling, PM Lee said, pointing to how Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Changi Airport's ground handling partners have been certified by the International Air Transport Association to handle and transport pharmaceutical supplies.

Leading global logistics companies such as DHL, United Parcel Service and FedEx are also based here, he added.

"We are now gearing ourselves up to handle large volumes of vaccine shipments into and through Singapore, to help win the global fight against Covid-19."

Firms in the air cargo sector have intensified preparations in recent months in anticipation of the upcoming exercise to distribute vaccines around the globe.

Locally, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and Changi Airport Group have set up a task force to work on the vaccine shipment process. The task force comprises 18 members in the air cargo sector, including SIA and ground handlers Sats and dnata.

In a briefing last week, the task force said the air cargo hub here is ready to handle vaccine shipments coming into and through Singapore, having invested extensively in the handling of pharmaceutical shipments over the years.


PM Lee attributed the readiness to handle the vaccines to forward planning as well as the systematic creation of opportunities.

"It took us years of investment and planning, building a business-friendly climate and expanding our air links around the world," he said. "These long-term investments are now paying dividends."










Capacity limits for attractions, malls and weddings to be raised in phase 3
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Local attractions can apply to increase their operating capacity from 50 per cent to up to 65 per cent when Singapore enters phase three from Dec 28, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said yesterday.

The capacity limit for malls and large standalone stores will be increased from 10 sq m per person to 8 sq m per person, though measures to prevent crowding in popular areas remain in place, the ministry said as it detailed the further easing of restrictions in various areas.

Speaking at a virtual press conference yesterday, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said Singapore is also prepared to allow further relaxation of measures - be it for domestic activities or border control - further along phase three of its reopening.


"The approach we will take is to conduct pilots in higher-risk activities and settings... before we decide to take a further move," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

Restrictions on religious organisations, weddings, funerals and live performances will also be relaxed.

All religious organisations will be allowed to increase their capacity for congregational and other worship services to a maximum of 250 people, as trials have shown that they have been able to do so safely.

Live performances will also be allowed to resume for worship services, along with rites and prayers held at places of worship.

These performances may involve a limited number of singers, as well as wind instruments like flutes and other instruments, with safe management measures in place.

Live instrumental music will be allowed for marriage solemnisations in indoor venues, as well as funerals, though wind instruments will not be allowed for these events.

Up to eight visitors can attend marriage solemnisations held in the home. Currently, a total of 10 people - including members of the hosting household, but excluding the solemniser and vendors - are allowed.

Indoor live performances will also be allowed to have audiences of up to 250, while ongoing pilots for outdoor live performances can expand to a capacity of 250, up from the current 100.

For these performances, people must remain segregated in zones of up to 50 people each.

Pilots will continue for busking and live performances at outdoor venues, karaoke and nightlife, to help the authorities assess how these activities can take place and be scaled up safely.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said Enterprise Singapore will be working with major retailers to see how their stores' layout can be improved to create more space for shoppers to be dispersed.

This may include tapping space outside of their premises.

"This is to make sure that we are able to better manage the crowd during the year-end festive season and also the period towards Chinese New Year," said Mr Chan, adding that more announcements will be made separately.


Mr Wong noted that Singapore has made good progress on the pre-conditions that it had spelt out for moving into phase three.

This includes adoption of the TraceTogether programme, which has about 65 per cent of the resident population participating in it as at Sunday. MOH said the country is on track to hit its target of about 70 per cent by the end of the year.

The implementation of TraceTogether-only SafeEntry - where the TraceTogether app or token is required for SafeEntry check-ins - will be carried out only early next year, said MOH.


This contact tracing requirement will kick in only after everyone who wants a token has had a chance to collect one at a community club or centre in his constituency.

Until then, visitors can perform SafeEntry check-in via the TraceTogether app, SingPass Mobile app, their identity cards and so on.

Singapore has also increased its polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test capacity significantly - it can now run more than 50,000 tests a day, MOH said.

Antigen rapid tests for larger and higher-risk events have also been introduced.

Most businesses and members of the public have also been cooperating with safe management measures, MOH noted, adding that these efforts have helped keep community transmission low.













Coronavirus Phase 3
Singapore to let in more travellers in bid to retain air hub status: Chan Chun Sing
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

More travellers will be allowed to enter or transit through Singapore as part of efforts to reconnect to the world and preserve the Republic's status as an air hub.

But the reopening of borders will be done in a controlled manner so as not to overwhelm Singapore's healthcare system and contact tracing capabilities, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.


"With enhanced testing and tracing capabilities, we will be able to pilot more surgical ways to manage the risks for travellers," he added.

"For logistics, we will maintain our air, land and sea links with the world to perform our role as a critical supply chain node for global logistics to flow through."

Mr Chan noted how Singapore has not imposed export restrictions which would have benefited itself but affected the global supply chain amid the raging pandemic.

This has shown the world that the Republic will honour its word even in a crisis, and that it will do its best to keep the global supply chain moving, he added.

This rebuilding of Singapore's air hub is one of the four key strategies the Government is adopting as it seeks to tackle the economic challenges brought about by Covid-19, said Mr Chan.


He was speaking during a virtual press conference by the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force on Singapore's plans as it moves into the third phase of eased circuit breaker measures.

Mr Chan said the recovery next year is expected to be gradual and uneven because of recurrent waves of infections in other countries.

This is compounded by uncertainties about the pace of vaccine production, distribution and implementation.

Mr Chan also said the Government expects many sectors of Singapore's economy to be permanently changed.

"We should pivot to seize new opportunities and overcome the current challenges, starting now."

The second way in which the Government will look to achieve this, apart from reopening Singapore's skies, is to resume economic activity safely and progressively, said Mr Chan.

"For those that have not been able to resume operations, we will continue to work closely with them to pilot commercially viable and new ways to do so," he said.

The third way in which the Republic will seek to help its economy recover from the pandemic is to adopt a "clear, consistent, coherent and facilitative posture to attract high-value, long-term investments" to the country.

The minister said that this approach has helped to attract investment from companies such as Hyundai even during the coronavirus pandemic.

He added: "Our plans include seizing the opportunities across diverse group sectors such as advanced manufacturing, financial services, infocomms and media, agri-tech and others."

More details will be announced in the coming months.


Fourth, Singapore will continue to diversify its product and food supply chains, as well as markets, to make itself more resilient to disruptions, said Mr Chan.

This will be done by reviewing local food production capabilities and expanding Singapore's network of free trade agreement areas, among other things.

Mr Chan said: "In conclusion, we must never get complacent and let our guard down.

"Otherwise, complacency will deal us a fate no different from countries which have suffered from recurring waves of infections that have further disrupted their economic recovery."













Coronavirus Vaccines: Answers to key questions on vaccination strategy
Yesterday's virtual press conference by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 saw a range of questions asked on Singapore's planned vaccination roll-out. Clara Chong reports on some of the highlights.
By Clara Chong, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020


Q Why is the vaccination programme voluntary and not mandatory? How does the Government hope to encourage greater public acceptance of vaccination apart from getting it free?

A Very few vaccinations are made mandatory, because the Government wants to respect people's choice, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said. But the task force hopes to encourage everyone to be vaccinated since the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and the expert committee on Covid-19 vaccination have concluded the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective and safe.

The task force expects all Singaporeans would be able to get a Covid-19 vaccination before the end of next year.

However, the Government will not force everyone to accept the vaccine, which is still new. The task force is still learning more about the disease as well as the vaccine, such as how effective it is, and what its side effects are. Long-term data is still being gathered and as the task force studies the vaccine profile, and its side effects, it is prudent for it to make recommendations, but not insist that every Singaporean take it up.


Singaporeans may also have a variety of different medical conditions that may require the task force to specifically match certain types of vaccines to those to ensure that safety is upheld, Mr Gan said.

To provide more information for people to make an informed choice, the task force will continue to engage them to clarify the status of vaccines, their benefits, and possible experiences people may have as they come forward to be vaccinated.

"And we hope that this part of the education process will allow all of us then to make an informed decision and have confidence that vaccines are effective and safe," Mr Gan said.




Q What happens if the take-up rate of vaccination is low? Is there a target take-up rate?

A There is no specific target at the moment. The target is as high as possible a take-up rate, Mr Gan said. The Government will attempt to reach out to all eligible Singaporeans and local residents to encourage them to be vaccinated and will enhance public education and outreach to encourage as many to sign up as possible.


Q How will long-term pass holders be encouraged to get the jab?

A Access will be very convenient, said Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng.

To make it so, the Government will enlist the help of medical centres and healthcare providers serving dormitories, medical centres located in some recreational centres, as well as community medical clinics that provide screening and testing to migrant workers.

Vaccinations will be offered to all migrant workers in a phased approach that will be made known in the coming weeks. The calibrated approach will also consider the needs of the larger population and the community.




Q Will everyone get the Pfizer vaccine? Or will some people get the Sinovac vaccine from China with which Singapore also signed advance purchase agreements? How do you decide who gets which one?

A Currently, HSA has authorised only the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. When more vaccines are authorised, they will be used.

Some vaccines may have certain limitations or criteria and the task force will have to assess them individually to determine which is more suitable for which segment of the population, Mr Gan said.

The current recommendation is to offer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with priority for healthcare workers, front-liners, as well as vulnerable patients who do not have any medical contraindications.




Q Migrant workers accounted for the overwhelming majority of cases in Singapore. Are they currently being considered a priority or vulnerable group for the vaccine?

A Based on the migrant worker population of about 300,000, some 100,000 of them are not immune. So the task force will prioritise this group of workers over their colleagues and the new workers coming in as restrictions are relaxed to allow more migrant workers.


Q After allergy issues occurred in Britain, that country has issued an anaphylaxis warning on the Pfizer vaccine. Are there similar concerns here?

A The task force is concerned about allergy reactions, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak.

"And this is also a similar concern for any other vaccine that is available today for a variety of different conditions," Associate Professor Mak said.

The most severe allergic reaction would be anaphylaxis, which may result in breathing difficulties. In Britain, at least two individuals displayed features of a severe anaphylactic reaction.

With this in mind, the HSA and the expert committee's recommendation is to not vaccinate individuals who have a history of severe allergic reactions or anaphylactic reactions.

Furthermore, all individuals receiving the vaccination must be observed for a short period of time afterwards to ensure they do not have the immediate signs of an allergic reaction.

If an individual has an allergic reaction after that first dose is given, the recommendation is to not give the second dose. "We err on the side of safety," Prof Mak added.




Q If the take up-rate for the vaccination is high, will certain safe distancing measures change for the people who have been vaccinated?

A Though the vaccine will protect the person who has received it, there is still no clear evidence that it can protect against the virus being transmitted to another person, Mr Gan said.

"So we cannot assume that once you're vaccinated, you are not likely to transmit the virus to any other person and you can take off your mask and do whatever you want," Mr Gan said.


Hence, despite vaccination, all safe distancing measures must still continue to be observed. The task force will monitor the development in this area and adjust the measures progressively over time.



Q Once the vaccination plan is rolled out, will there be any changes to Singapore's testing strategy?

A The task force has to take into account that more people will be vaccinated next year, look at the overall suite of measures, and make adjustments accordingly, Mr Wong said.

"For example, with vaccinations in place and if travellers can show proof and certification of vaccination, then the kind of test we administer might well vary, because we would then want to test to make sure that the person has antibodies in response to the vaccine," he noted.

Considering that more and more people will be vaccinated, Singapore will still need the full suite of other safeguards, but the types of tests that will be administered will have to vary.

The testing regime and protocols at the borders and for events, for instance, will have to be adjusted accordingly. The task force is working through all of these different settings now.






















Coronavirus Foreign workers: Migrant workers can return to community once a month in pilot
Scheme to begin in first quarter; distribution of contact tracing devices to over 450,000 workers will be finished by end of December 2020
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Migrant workers in some dormitories will be able to return to the community once a month in a pilot scheme starting in the first quarter of next year, the authorities announced yesterday.

This will be subject to compliance with rostered routine testing, wearing of contact tracing devices and safe living measures, Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said during a multi-ministry task force virtual press conference.


The move will follow the distribution of contact tracing devices to more than 450,000 workers staying in dormitories or working in the construction, marine and process sectors which is to be completed by the end of this month.

These devices, called BluePass Tokens, are aimed at improving the ability to isolate and ring-fence potential cases once they are detected, said a joint statement by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Manpower.

The pilot scheme comes after the announcement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday that Singapore will enter the third phase of its reopening on Dec 28.

Easing of restrictions in migrant worker dormitories began last month. Workers in dorms have been under movement restrictions since April, when the first dorms were gazetted as isolation areas after a spike in cases.

Workers from approved dormitories can now use communal facilities to cook their own food on rest days and recreational facilities such as gyms and basketball courts.

They can also visit specified recreation centres on their rest days, although the workers are still largely required to stay in their dorms except when they are going to work or running essential errands.


Dr Tan said workers will be able to visit recreation centres more often for their everyday needs, such as for remittance services or to visit the barber.

"We are also working with recreational centres to bring in more activities, including movie and sports screening, some pasar malam (night market) perhaps," he added.

He stressed that the crisis is far from over, even as more restrictions are eased in the coming weeks and months.

Measures must continue to be taken, such as the wearing of BluePass Tokens so that isolation can be done very quickly if there is a new infection, he said.


As part of efforts to keep migrant workers safe and to ensure that any new cases or clusters are detected and contained quickly, the authorities will continue their "multi-layered strategy" of aggressive routine testing using both the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) as well as antigen rapid testing, accompanied by isolation strategies.

Rostered routine testing of all workers still susceptible to infection will continue. All such workers who have been staying in dormitories and those who work in the construction, marine and process sectors have been tested once every 14 days.

After several rounds of such tests, the number of new infections has remained very low, said the joint statement. "Since October, no new cases were detected in the dormitories on many days."

New dormitories are also being built, with improved safety standards to minimise the risk of a resurgence of Covid-19 among migrant workers, and prevent new public health threats, said the statement.

Meanwhile, the earliest cohort of migrant workers who have recovered from Covid-19 and are currently exempt from routine testing are being monitored to see how their antibodies change over time.

Routine testing will resume for these workers if their antibodies start to fade, or if there is evidence of reinfection among them.







47 per cent of migrant workers in Singapore dorms have had a Covid-19 infection, say Manpower and Health Ministries
Singapore's testing and medical strategy has ensured low morbidity and mortality rates among them
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Almost half of migrant workers staying in dormitories have had a Covid-19 infection, the authorities said yesterday.

As at Sunday, 54,505 such workers have tested positive for the virus via a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

Another 98,289 had a positive result from a serology test, which checks for a previous infection.

This means 152,794 workers in dorms have tested positive in PCR or serology tests, or both.

They form 47 per cent of the 323,000 dormitory dwellers in Singapore, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a joint statement.

The ministries added that serology tests for about 65,000 workers in dorms who had not taken them before were still being carried out. "This will give us the full picture of the infection prevalence among our migrant workers," they said.

PCR tests are used to diagnose current or new infections. Serology tests identify those who have been infected in the past, by detecting the presence of Covid-19 antibodies in blood samples.

At a press conference by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 yesterday, Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said the Government's testing and medical strategy had helped to achieve good health outcomes for migrant workers, with very low morbidity and mortality rates among them.

"It has also enabled us to better understand the prevalence of infection amongst our migrant workers," he added.

"This will go a long way, in the coming months ahead, in informing us and allowing us to refine our strategies to keep them safe against future outbreaks."

Dr Tan said Singapore has made significant strides since March, when the first Covid-19 infections were detected in dorms.

At the start of the outbreak, the top priority was to contain the spread of the virus, as well as take care of the health of those affected, he said.

Once this was managed in early June, the focus shifted to the clearing of workers and dorms so that recovered and infection-free workers could resume work safely.

By the end of May, the scientific literature had highlighted that a significant number of those infected did not have symptoms, but they still contributed to the spread of Covid-19.

Local and international data also showed that those infected could continue to shed non-infectious viral fragments for up to several months, even after recovery.

Therefore, an even more comprehensive testing strategy was needed to separate workers who had never been infected, or had the virus earlier but were no longer infectious, from those currently infected or harbouring the virus without any symptoms, Dr Tan said.

"This was why we made the decision to systematically screen all migrant workers living in dormitories to allow workers to return to work quickly and safely," he said, adding that a combination of PCR and serology tests was used.

By August, all migrant workers staying in dormitories had been tested at least once for Covid-19. "This gave us the assurance that the vast majority of infections have been contained," said Dr Tan.

Oct 13 was another significant milestone, as there were no new cases detected in dorms for the first time since March 25. He noted that new infections in dorms have continued to be low in the past two months.

By early last month, more than 98 per cent of this population had been cleared to resume work.

Dr Tan said the progress has been made possible with the help of stakeholders such as dormitory operators, employers and non-governmental organisations.

He also credited the nearly 3,000 officers and volunteers who formed an inter-agency task force to help with curbing the virus situation in dorms, as well as the workers themselves for their cooperation. "We could not have contained this virus without the determination, the cooperation, the patience and the understanding of the migrant workers in the dormitories," Dr Tan said.

But with all the efforts in the past months, Singapore has "just reached base camp", and the crisis is far from over.

"We still have to scale the mountain peak in terms of ensuring that as we open up safely, we will continue to implement a robust and an inclusive regime of vaccination and regular testing for all of our migrant workers, isolating and treating the affected ones, and doing aggressive contact tracing while keeping the rest of us safe," he added.


MOM and MOH said the vast majority of migrant workers in dorms who tested PCR-or serology-positive were asymptomatic or had very mild symptoms, based on a study of workers in purpose-built dorms who tested positive as at July 25.

Only about one in five of migrant workers living in such dorms had symptoms, with the remaining displaying very mild or no symptoms.

The ratio of those who are PCR-positive to serology-positive is 1:1.8.

This means that for every Covid-19 infection in the dormitories detected through PCR testing, another 1.8 cases were untested and undetected at the time, and were identified subsequently only through serology testing.

"This is not surprising as many migrant workers did not have any symptoms, and thus would not have sought treatment and received a PCR test in the process," said the ministries.

The ratio of 1:1.8 is comparable with the same ratio for the whole of South Korea, and lower than 1:4 in Spain and 1:15 in France, they said. "Our low ratio reflects the extensive testing that was carried out in dorms," the ministries added.

When it comes to the reporting of Covid-19 practices, the ministries said Singapore follows the World Health Organisation's criterion that only positive results from PCR tests are included in the case count, which ensures consistency in reporting cases across countries.

But a different approach is taken for serology tests, which are used to aid epidemiological investigations and to assess overall prevalence of infection within a population.

Most countries do serology testing only on a sampling basis, to estimate the prevalence of infections in a population, but Singapore went further to do serology tests on the entire population of migrant workers staying in dormitories, the ministries said.

"This was a unique aspect of our efforts to clear the dormitories of Covid-19," they added.







Much lower Covid-19 prevalence rate in wider community in Singapore than among migrant workers, sampling study shows
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2020

Unlike the migrant worker population - where almost 50 per cent of those living in dormitories have tested positive for Covid-19 - the prevalence rate of the virus in the larger community is much smaller, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak on Monday (Dec 14).

This lower rate, based on a serology sampling study conducted in the community between September and October, reflects people's adherence to Covid-19 safety measures, he said.

Elaborating on the study, Associate Professor Mak said it found only four out of 1,600 subjects had a positive serology test, which translates to a possible community prevalence rate of 0.25 per cent.

In comparison, about 47 per cent of the 323,000 migrant workers living in dorms have tested positive for Covid-19 as at Sunday (Dec 13), based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and serology tests done over the course of the year.

Prof Mak gave the figures at a press conference when asked whether there is a group of Singaporeans who do not need the jab because they may have antibodies from a past infection to shield against reinfection.

Those with a positive serology test would have been infected in the past, at least 10 to 14 days back, while those with a positive PCR test are highly likely to be currently infected with Covid-19.

But, at the same time, the serology results in the community do indicate a higher prevalence rate of Covid-19 infection compared with the prevalence rate derived from positive PCR results, Prof Mak said.


The prevalence of Covid-19 in the community, based on positive PCR results, was around 0.04 per cent, much lower than the 0.25 per cent rate found in the community sampling study.

Similarly, fewer dorm residents tested positive for Covid-19 with the PCR testing than the serology testing. There were 54,505 who tested positive with PCR tests, compared with 98,289 who were positive with serology tests, although they did not have a positive PCR test.

"This is in keeping with our understanding that Covid-19 infection can occur in an asymptomatic fashion among people.

"This is also the reason we need to continue our vigilance and not assume there is no cryptic spread of Covid-19 infection in the community," said Prof Mak.










We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel: PM Lee Hsien Loong on the COVID-19 situation in Singapore on 14 December 2020

In his televised address yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the progress Singapore has made since the first Covid-19 case was detected here, the brighter outlook offered by vaccines and what must be done to get over the final stretch. The text of his speech follows:

My fellow Singaporeans, we are coming to a full year since our first Covid-19 case. It has been a year of uncertainty, full of ups and downs, filled with anxiety and trepidation.

But much has changed within the last few months. In March and April, we peaked at over 1,000 cases a day. Now on most days, we have zero cases of local transmissions.

When the pandemic first started, we worried if there would be enough supplies in the supermarkets. Today, supermarket shelves are full, and shopping is calm and uneventful.

Parents were worried then whether their kids should go to school. But we kept the school year intact, CCAs have resumed, and graduating students have finished exams and are waiting for their results.

We will not forget the two months of circuit breaker in April and May. But today, life is a lot more normal. We go to work, dine out, and meet friends, though in groups of no more than five.

How did we bring things under control? It took a tremendous effort, and some good luck.

Our measures were hard for everyone, but they worked. Singaporeans showed resilience and took them in their stride.

Our economy took a big hit, but we did not let it crash. Despite the global economic dislocation, most of our workers kept their jobs.


Now, our defences against Covid-19 are much stronger.

We have steadily built up our testing capacities and procedures. We introduced rostered routine testing of higher risk groups. We started using antigen rapid tests, to resume larger gatherings and events safely.

We also beefed up our contact tracing capabilities - for example, expanding our SafeEntry and TraceTogether programmes, and distributing TraceTogether tokens.

We got used to the inconvenient restrictions, and found ways to carry on with life. We looked after one another, reminding each other to adhere to safe distancing, to wear masks, to see a doctor if ill, and so on.

I am very grateful that Singaporeans have complied with the spirit, and not just the letter of the rules.

We stayed united, kept up our guard, and did not allow ourselves to become complacent over time.

With everyone's full support, our enhanced safeguards worked, and we could gradually ease our restrictions. We can be proud of how far we have come.


Route to Phase Three

Because of your efforts, we are now ready to progress to the next phase.

Phase three will begin in two weeks' time, on Dec 28, so we will end the year with some good news.

The ministerial task force will explain the details immediately after my broadcast.

We will ease capacity limits in public places like malls and attractions, and at places of worship.

One significant change is to allow groups of up to eight to congregate, up from the current maximum of five.

So eight people can dine out together, or visit someone's home.

This will make it easier to hold family get-togethers during the festive period.

Please understand that even as we enter phase three, the battle is far from won. The Covid-19 virus has not been eradicated. There is a long way to go.

Around the world, the pandemic is still raging. Many countries are seeing second, third, or even fourth waves of infection, with record numbers of daily cases.

International borders remain largely closed. But trade and travel are our lifeblood.

The longer our own borders stay closed to travellers, the greater the risk of us permanently losing out as an international hub, and consequently hurting our livelihoods.

Therefore, our only option is to reopen our borders in a controlled and safe manner.

As we do so, we will see more imported cases. And there will be some risk of these imported cases spreading to the community.

We have already had a few cases recently: An airport staff, who likely came into contact with infected passengers. A marine worker, who picked up the virus after boarding ships to do repair and resupply work.

This is a calculated risk we have to accept. But the Government will take every precaution, and do our best to prevent imported cases from triggering a new outbreak.

At the same time, Singaporeans must keep our guard up, because the virus is most likely still circulating silently within our community.

Each of us needs to play our part.

By all means make use of the higher limits and reconnect with friends and family. But please do not abandon your mindset of watchfulness and caution.

This is absolutely not the time to relax, and let our guard down. Or to hold a big party, imagining that the problem has disappeared.

Progressing from phase two to phase three is a calibrated, careful move. We are easing the restrictions in a controlled way, so that we can keep the Covid-19 situation stable, and take more steps forward later.

It is vital that you stay cautious and vigilant, continue to cooperate with the government, and comply with the rules and restrictions that will apply in phase three.


Update on vaccinations

How long will we have to keep this up for? It may be for quite a while, possibly a year or more. One key factor is how soon Covid-19 vaccines become available to us.

The Government has been working quietly behind the scenes, since early in the pandemic, to secure access to vaccines.

This was not a simple exercise. More than 200 vaccine candidates were being developed, and not all would succeed.

We started talking to the pharmaceutical companies early to understand the science, and identify the promising candidate vaccines likely to reach production soon.

We set aside more than US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion). We placed multiple bets, to sign advance purchase agreements and make early down payments for the most promising candidates, including with Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Sinovac.

We made arrangements with pharmaceutical companies to facilitate their clinical trials and drug development in Singapore, and attracted a few to establish vaccine manufacturing capabilities here.

We also supported local efforts to develop a vaccine. This gave our own scientists and researchers the opportunity to do cutting edge work. It was also insurance, in case the global supply chain was disrupted.

This way, we built up a diversified portfolio of options, to ensure that Singapore would be near the front of the queue for vaccines, and not last in line.

Securing early access to vaccines was a whole-of-government effort.

Many agencies and public officers, led by the head of the Civil Service, were involved in this critical mission.

I commend them for their good work. They are among the legion of unsung heroes who have helped us get through this crisis.


As you would have read in the news, the first vaccines are now coming into production.

I am very happy to tell you that after studying the scientific evidence and clinical trial data, the Health Sciences Authority has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for pandemic use.

The first shipment should arrive by the end of this month, making Singapore one of the first countries to obtain this vaccine.

We also expect other vaccines to arrive in Singapore in the coming months. If all goes according to plan, we will have enough vaccines for everyone in Singapore by third quarter 2021.

MOH has set up a committee of doctors and experts to recommend a vaccination strategy for us. The committee has proposed that our entire adult population should be vaccinated, but to make vaccinations voluntary.

First priority will be given to those who are at greatest risk: healthcare workers and front-line personnel, as well as the elderly and vulnerable.

Thereafter, the committee proposes to progressively vaccinate the rest of the population, and to cover everyone who wants a vaccination by the end of next year.

The Government has accepted these recommendations.

I have personal confidence in our experts. My Cabinet colleagues and I, including the older ones, will be getting ourselves vaccinated early. This is to show you, especially seniors like me, that we believe the vaccines are safe.

We have decided to make vaccinations free for all Singaporeans, and for all long-term residents who are currently here.

So I strongly encourage you to get vaccinated too, when the vaccine is offered to you.

Because when you get yourself vaccinated, you are not just protecting yourself, you are also doing your part to protect others, especially your loved ones.

The more of us are vaccinated, the harder it will be for the virus to spread, and the safer we will all be as a society.

Vaccines will support our recovery in more ways than one.

As a global aviation hub, we play a crucial role transporting vaccines around the world. Vaccines require cold chain management. An ordinary refrigerator is not good enough: The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 deg C, colder than the Arctic in winter!

This requires infrastructure, high standards, skilled personnel, and good connectivity to many different countries all along the supply chain.

Fortunately, Singapore has a strong ecosystem for cargo handling. Leading global logistics companies like DHL, UPS and FedEx are based here. SIA, and Changi Airport's ground handling partners are certified by Iata (the International Air Transport Association) to handle and transport pharmaceutical supplies.

We are now gearing ourselves up to handle large volumes of vaccine shipments into and through Singapore, to help win the global fight against Covid-19.

We did not get here overnight. We have always planned ahead, systematically creating opportunities for ourselves.

It took us years of investment and planning, building a business friendly climate and expanding our air links around the world. These long-term investments are now paying dividends.


Conclusion

During this immediate crisis, we have reacted quickly and comprehensively, marshalled resources to solve our problems, and stayed resilient.

Our situation is now stable, but only because everyone has worked so hard, and sacrificed so much. Now that vaccines are becoming available, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

As vaccinations become widespread not only in Singapore, but also in our region and the world, we can look forward to resuming more normal lives.

Let us keep up our efforts in this final stretch, to cross the finish line together, and complete our mission to defeat Covid-19.

Thank you.

















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