Wednesday, 6 January 2021

COVID-19 Vaccinations a key focus for Singapore this year: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Ministerial statement on 4 Jan 2021

All who take COVID-19 jabs will get physical vaccination card, cannot choose which vaccine to take

Singapore to offer financial support to those who suffer serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines

More COVID-19 vaccines to arrive in Singapore soon, including those by Moderna, Sinovac
By Audrey Tan and Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

The national effort to vaccinate the population will require considerable resources and will be one of Singapore's key focus areas this year, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong as he fleshed out the country's vaccination strategy yesterday.

"Vaccinations will be a key enabler allowing us to return to normalcy," he told Parliament yesterday. He said this is a new line of defence that Singapore must put in place while the global situation remains volatile, and it involves a massive logistical exercise.

"We have secured enough vaccines for the whole population. Every vaccine approved for use will meet all our safety and efficacy requirements," he said.

Sharing some details of the programme, Mr Gan said people will need to make a booking before visiting vaccination centres for the Covid-19 shot, and will not get to choose the vaccine they want.

Vaccinated individuals will get a physical card, but can also check their vaccination status online.


Following the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine last month, Mr Gan said, more vaccines are expected to arrive here in the next few months, including those by United States firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.

"If all goes according to schedule, we will have enough vaccines for everyone by the third quarter of this year," said the minister.

Healthcare workers and other Covid-19 front-line staff will be first in line for the vaccine, followed by the elderly, those at greater risk of severe disease, and those in jobs or settings where risk of a super-spreading event is high, including migrant workers. Vaccinations will then be progressively broadened to include other Singaporeans and long-term residents.


Mr Gan urged people to get vaccinated, though vaccination is voluntary. "This will not only protect yourself, but also indirectly protect others who cannot be vaccinated due to medical reasons. This collective protection will be more effective the more people are vaccinated."

To ensure vaccine access, Mr Gan said Covid-19 vaccination will be free for all Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term residents - about 5.7 million people.


He urged people not to dawdle: "The best time to vaccinate is now. If people wait until an outbreak has happened to get themselves vaccinated, it will be too late, both to protect themselves and to prevent the outbreak in the first place."

He stressed that the Health Sciences Authority will allow a Covid-19 vaccine to be used only if it is assessed to be sufficiently efficacious and safe for use, and only if the benefits are assessed to outweigh the risks of any potential adverse effects from the vaccination.


To further give people peace of mind, the Health Ministry will also introduce a vaccine injury financial assistance programme to provide support for people who suffer serious side effects related to Covid-19 vaccines administered here.

In response to 14 MPs who raised questions on Singapore's vaccination strategy, Mr Gan and Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, said that vaccination is not a silver bullet for tackling the pandemic.


For example, while the Government may consider relaxing some rules for those vaccinated - such as doing away with testing before events or changing quarantine rules for returning travellers - existing rules will still apply until more data is available, said Mr Wong.

"So until we understand the effects of the vaccine, I think we will not be able to make any changes to our measures, be it domestic or travel measures," he said.











Safety is top priority in COVID-19 vaccine roll-out
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

Safety must be ensured for people receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, and that will include having a proper queueing and registration system, and ensuring their data is captured accurately.

All of these will have a bearing on how quickly vaccinations can be rolled out, Parliament heard on Monday (Jan 4).

"So it is quite a complex situation," said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in response to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who had expressed his view that the nationwide vaccination effort should be rolled out more quickly.


In his ministerial statement on Singapore's response to the pandemic, Mr Gan acknowledged that many questions had been raised on vaccine safety and efficacy.

"These concerns are understandable, given the extraordinary speed at which the Covid-19 vaccines have been developed and brought to market," he said.

"Let me assure you that the safety and well-being of Singaporeans is top priority in our vaccination efforts."

In response to Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas), who had asked if there is any data to show that existing vaccines are effective against the new, more transmissible strain of the coronavirus from Britain, Mr Gan added that there is currently no evidence that shows they are not.

Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have publicly stated that their vaccines are likely to protect against the new strain, and are undertaking studies to formally confirm this.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) will evaluate the data as it emerges and review Singapore's vaccine strategy and border measures accordingly, Mr Gan said.

"Mutations occur in viruses naturally and different strains can emerge from time to time, especially in a long-drawn pandemic," he said. "Experts have said that it is unlikely that these mutations would impact effectiveness of current vaccines."


The Health Minister also detailed the rigorous review process that Covid-19 vaccines have to undergo before being approved for use here.

First, they are studied by experts from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) under the Pandemic Special Access Route. The vaccines are held up against strict international standards of quality, safety and efficacy.

These standards are the same as those used for full vaccine evaluations, except that longer-term data from clinical trials will be evaluated only later, as more data becomes available.

As part of its review process, the HSA looks at data from pre-clinical studies in laboratories, clinical trials on human volunteers, manufacturing and quality controls, as well as countries' ongoing experiences with the actual use of the vaccine.


The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine underwent this process before being authorised for use, while the Moderna and Sinovac vaccines are currently being reviewed.

"HSA will allow a Covid-19 vaccine to be used only if it is assessed to be sufficiently efficacious and safe for use, and only if the benefits of the vaccine are assessed to outweigh the risks of any potential adverse effects from the vaccination," Mr Gan said.

Following HSA's approval, the independent expert committee appointed by MOH also reviewed clinical data on the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

"In assessing the suitability of vaccine candidates for specific population groups, the expert committee took into consideration four key criteria - vaccine safety, vaccine efficacy, vaccine tolerability, and data adequacy of clinical trials," Mr Gan added.










More COVID-19 vaccines to arrive in Singapore soon, including those by Moderna, Sinovac: Gan Kim Yong
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

More vaccines are expected to arrive in Singapore in the next few months, including those by American biotechnology firm Moderna and China's Sinovac, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.

The Republic received its first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine last month.

Mr Gan said in Parliament that there will be enough Covid-19 vaccines for everyone in Singapore by the third quarter of this year if all goes according to schedule.

"The vaccines will arrive in Singapore in batches, given high global demand, especially from countries with high rates of infection," he said.


Pharmaceutical companies will also need time to scale up vaccine production and distribution, Mr Gan added in his ministerial statement on the Covid-19 situation here.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the first vaccine against the coronavirus that has been approved for use in Singapore.

The nation's vaccination drive is kicking off first with healthcare workers and staff in the healthcare sector as they work in the direct care of patients or in supporting roles, Mr Gan said.

Other front-line and essential personnel will also be prioritised for receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, he said.

These include swabbers hired by the Health Promotion Board, as well as staff working in government quarantine facilities, community care facilities, and dedicated stay-home notice facilities.

For example, 40 staff from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases were the first to receive doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec 30 last year, including Professor Leo Yee Sin, the centre's executive director.

Mr Gan added that the elderly and those at greater risk of severe disease from the coronavirus will be vaccinated from next month, beginning with seniors aged 70 and above.

Those in jobs or settings where the risk of a super-spreading event is high - such as the construction, marine and process sectors - including migrant workers, will also be prioritised.

"Thereafter, we will progressively broaden our vaccinations to include other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible," the minister said.

Mr Gan added that as more vaccines are approved for use, Singapore will adjust its vaccination programme depending on vaccine supply and disease epidemiology.

He told the House that the Government had started planning for the Covid-19 vaccination programme "very early on", and that it has in place end-to-end processes to meet the cold-chain logistics requirements.

These include delivery and receipt of the doses at the airport, storage and transport to vaccination sites - so that the quality and efficacy of the vaccines are not compromised.

In response to Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), who wanted to know how Singapore was mitigating the risk of non-delivery of vaccine orders, Mr Gan said Singapore is in close contact with the manufacturers that it has signed contracts with and that it is monitoring the delivery schedule.

"We are also looking forward to more vaccines being approved so we have alternatives," said Mr Gan.

He said diversification of vaccine sources will ensure that Singapore has access to other supplies, even if one shipment is delayed.

"This way, we ensure that we have adequate vaccine supplies for the whole of Singapore," he added.










Health minister sets out Singapore's criteria for COVID-19 vaccine approval
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

Singapore, like the World Health Organisation and the United States, will only approve Covid-19 vaccines that are at least 50 per cent effective, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

He was responding yesterday to Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), who had asked if the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has any threshold for efficacy before it approves any vaccine.

At the same time, other criteria must also be considered before approving a vaccine in a crisis situation like the pandemic, Mr Gan noted.

HSA's experts will weigh the benefits and risks, and conduct a holistic assessment before concluding whether a vaccine will be approved for use, he added.

This includes factors such as the potential risk of adverse incidents.

"So it is not a clear-cut threshold that once (the efficacy) is 50.1 per cent, we will approve it. If there is greater uncertainty, then we will require a higher level of efficacy for us to be assured of the benefits versus the risks," Mr Gan said.

Also, the severity of the health crisis will have to be taken into account.

A lower threshold of efficacy may be accepted in the event of a very severe pandemic that requires the population to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

The Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech - the first one to be approved here - has demonstrated an efficacy rate of 95 per cent in clinical trials on more than 40,000 participants aged between 16 and 91 years old.

Ms Lim noted that HSA's approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is an interim authorisation, and asked what additional information will need to be submitted in order for the vaccine to receive full registration.

In response, Mr Gan said the authorities will have to monitor how the vaccine is administered in real life, given that it has been rolled out for only a couple of months.

The manufacturers are also required to report any adverse incidents that happen so that Singapore can keep track of the vaccine's performance on the ground, as well as the potential risks that it may carry.

"We need to do this continuously for a prolonged period of time, usually one year, two years or maybe longer, so as to give us the assurance of the long-term effect of this vaccine," said Mr Gan, adding that this is partly why HSA has not yet given full authorisation to the vaccine.

A full authorisation will require long-term data to be available.

"But in view of the pandemic that we are facing today, HSA has given the interim approval for the use of this vaccine, accepting the fact that long-term data will only be available in the long term," said Mr Gan.










Singapore govt to offer support to those with serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

A new programme will be introduced to provide support for those who experience serious side effects related to Covid-19 vaccines administered here.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced this in Parliament on Monday (Jan 4), saying that the programme by the Health Ministry will give peace of mind to those receiving the vaccines, although few are expected to need this.

More details on the vaccine injury financial assistance programme will be announced later, he said.


"As with all medications and established vaccines, there is a small risk of very rare but serious adverse events that may occur post-vaccination, including allergic reactions," he said.

He added that those who receive the Covid-19 vaccine should be observed on-site for 30 minutes after they receive the jab, so that any severe allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis can be detected and treated promptly.


The Health Sciences Authority had earlier said that 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 people 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.







All who take COVID-19 jabs will get physical vaccination card, cannot choose which vaccine to take
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

People who opt to take the Covid-19 vaccine will receive a physical vaccination card, and will be able to check their vaccination records online, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Monday (Jan 4).

He noted that nearly 60 per cent of people indicated through surveys and other government outreach methods that they will get inoculated once a vaccine is available, while around a third said they would wait for more data before deciding.

Mr Gan also told Parliament that people will not be able to choose which vaccine they want.

He said the vaccination card will indicate which vaccine was administered and the appointment dates for the second vaccine dose, and will also provide brief post-vaccination advice.

Some vaccines, such as the one developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, require two doses to be administered 21 days apart, and an additional 14 days after the second dose to reach maximum protection against the virus.

Vaccine records will be updated in the National Immunisation Registry, the minister added.


Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) asked if individuals will be allowed to choose which vaccine they wish to take, when more than one has been approved for use.

Mr Gan said allowing individuals to choose will "unnecessarily complicate the already complex vaccination programme".

Instead, the allocation of vaccines will largely be based on the medical indications of the different vaccines and the suitability of a vaccine for different sub-groups in the population, as well as vaccine availability.

"Anyway, in the immediate term, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for use," Mr Gan said. "So there is no choice."







Prior bookings will be required before COVID-19 vaccination: Gan Kim Yong
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

Prior bookings will be required before people head down to the vaccination centres to receive their Covid-19 shot, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Monday (Jan 4).

This is necessary given the cold-chain requirements at the vaccination sites and multi-dose vials of the vaccines, he said.

"It will also ensure operational efficiency and minimise individual wait times," said Mr Gan in Parliament, adding that more information on how to make the bookings will be provided later.


Mr Gan said that the Government is concurrently readying clinics and vaccination centres for people to be vaccinated when it is their turn, even as healthcare workers are receiving their vaccinations within their healthcare institutions.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the first one against the coronavirus that has been approved for use in Singapore, with vaccines by other pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Sinovac expected to arrive in the months ahead.

BioNTech had said that once removed from the freezer, the vaccine can be stored for up to five days at between 2 deg C and 8 deg C and up to two hours at temperatures up to 30 deg C, prior to use.

The vaccine, which uses new mRNA technology, must be stored at ultra-low temperatures of about minus 70 deg C before being shipped to distribution centres in specially designed cool boxes filled with dry ice.


Forty staff from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) were the first to receive doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec 30, including Professor Leo Yee Sin, the centre's executive director.

The remaining NCID staff will be progressively vaccinated, with the rest of the National Healthcare Group management and staff from this month.

Mr Gan said that experts consulted by the Government have recommended that the nation prioritise vaccinations of groups that are most at risk. This is also in line with the guidance issued by the World Health Organisation, he added.

The nation's Covid-19 vaccination drive is kicking off first with healthcare workers and staff working in the healthcare sector as they work in direct care of patients or in supporting roles, he said.

Other front-line and essential personnel will also be among the first to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, Mr Gan said. This includes swabbers hired by the Health Promotion Board, as well as staff working at government quarantine facilities, community care facilities and dedicated stay-home notice facilities.

Mr Gan added that the elderly and those at greater risk of severe disease from the coronavirus will be vaccinated from next month.

This phase will begin with seniors aged 70 and above and those in jobs or settings where the risk of a super-spreading event is high, such as the construction, marine and process sectors, including migrant workers.

"Thereafter, we will progressively broaden our vaccinations to include other Singaporeans and long-term residents who are medically eligible," he said.

Mr Gan added that as more vaccines are approved for use, Singapore will adjust its vaccination programme, depending on vaccine supply and disease epidemiology.

He told the House that the Government had started planning for the Covid-19 vaccination programme "very early on", and that it has in place end-to-end processes to meet the cold-chain logistics requirements.

This includes delivery and receipt of the doses at the airport, storage and transport to vaccination sites so that the quality and efficacy of the vaccines are not compromised.





COVID-19 vaccines should protect against new, more transmissible strain from UK: Gan Kim Yong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

There is currently no evidence that existing Covid-19 vaccines are less effective against the new, more transmissible strain of the coronavirus, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Monday (Jan 4).

He noted that vaccine manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have publicly stated that their vaccines are likely to protect against the new strain, and are undertaking studies to formally confirm this.


The Health Ministry (MOH) will evaluate the data as it emerges and review Singapore's vaccine strategy and border measures accordingly, Mr Gan said.

The minister was responding to a parliamentary question from Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas), who had asked if there is any data to show that existing vaccines are effective against the new virus strain from the United Kingdom.

"Mutations occur in viruses naturally and different strains can emerge from time to time, especially in a long-drawn pandemic," Mr Gan said. "Experts have said that it is unlikely that these mutations would impact effectiveness of current vaccines."





Employees can retain job scope even if not getting COVID-19 vaccine, says Gan Kim Yong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

People who choose not to get the Covid-19 vaccine will not need to have a change of duties at their workplaces, unless there is a resurgence in the number of local cases, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.

He was responding to Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang), who had asked if those who are not vaccinated will have their job scopes reviewed in order to reduce exposure to the virus.

All workers should continue to take necessary precautions such as wearing masks, and where required, don personal protective equipment and undergo rostered routine testing, Mr Gan added.

He noted that there are certain groups of employees, such as researchers or laboratory staff, who may be working directly on the Covid-19 virus or face high risk of exposure to infected individuals.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Manpower are reviewing the issue of vaccinating workers in such workplace settings and will provide further advice later, he said.


In his ministerial statement on Singapore's response to the pandemic, Mr Gan said MOH will also introduce a vaccine injury financial assistance programme.

This scheme will support those who suffer a serious adverse event that is assessed to be related to Covid-19 vaccines administered in Singapore.

"While we expect few to need this, the programme will give peace of mind to those taking the vaccination," he said. "Further details on the programme will be provided in due course."

Mr Gan said the Health Sciences Authority and an independent expert committee appointed by his ministry have studied the data on potential side effects caused by the Covid-19 vaccine. The data includes information from clinical trials as well as the actual experience of countries where vaccination efforts are under way.

"They have factored this into their evaluation before granting authorisation or making a recommendation on the use of Covid-19 vaccines," he said.

People who get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may experience side effects such as pain at the injection site, fatigue, fever, muscle aches or headaches.

The authorities have recommended that those with known severe allergies should not be vaccinated. People will also be observed on site for 30 minutes post-vaccination, so that any severe allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis, can be detected and treated promptly.







Vaccinated travellers to Singapore to face same measures as non-vaccinated travellers for now: Lawrence Wong
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

Singapore is monitoring studies on the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines, and will consider relaxing stay-home measures for vaccinated travellers if the shots significantly curb the spread of the disease, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong.

But for now, the Government will continue to take a cautious approach, and vaccinated travellers will continue to be subject to the same border measures and stay-home requirements as non-vaccinated travellers, added Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

His remarks came amid the roll-out of vaccinations in some countries, including Singapore, after governments around the world approved the emergency use of several newly developed vaccines.

But it is unclear how this might impact travel, since much is still not known about how much the vaccines can reduce transmission and infection, and how long their effects will last.

Yesterday, Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) asked if vaccination may become a key requirement for travel to Singapore in future and how it might feature at the upcoming World Economic Forum slated to be held here in May.

Giving updates on Covid-19 in a ministerial statement, Mr Wong said that while vaccines benefit those who have been immunised, there is still not enough clarity on how they protect others from the Sars-CoV-2 virus.

The Government is closely monitoring several ongoing studies on how effective the vaccines are in this respect.


When there is clear evidence that the risks of transmission can be lowered significantly by the use of vaccines, Singapore will be open to adjusting measures imposed on travellers, said Mr Wong.

He added that while the Government may not require travellers to be vaccinated, those who are may be subject to relaxed stay-home conditions when they return from overseas, for instance.

As for the World Economic Forum, those travelling here to attend the meeting will be subject to prevailing measures, unless new data on vaccines has emerged by then, he said.










All hotel staff in contact with people on SHN to be tested for COVID-19 every 14 days: Education Minister Lawrence Wong
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

All hotel staff in contact with people serving stay-home notice (SHN) will now be placed on a rostered routine testing regime, where they will be tested for Covid-19 every two weeks, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament yesterday.

Doing so will provide an additional layer of safeguards in hotels which are used as SHN facilities, said Mr Wong, noting that a recent incident at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore hotel has highlighted how the risk of Covid-19 transmission remains despite safety measures that have been put in place.


In a ministerial statement, he said the authorities had not identified breaches in SHN protocols in the incident at the hotel, based on preliminary investigations.

But the investigations suggest that infection prevention protocols can be improved, such as through better crowd regulation, as well as having good ventilation systems to circulate more fresh air.

"We will continue to work closely with all SHN hotels to ensure that infection prevention protocols are robust."

On Dec 19, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that it was probing 13 cases of Covid-19 among people who had served their SHN at Mandarin Orchard Singapore.

The National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL), which conducts whole genome sequencing and phylogenetic analysis on all Covid-19 cases, found that the 13 imported cases - who were confirmed to be infected in early November last year - were infected by coronavirus strains that have high genetic similarity.

This was despite the guests flying in from different countries, implying that the infections may have come from one source.

Last Friday, MOH said it had concluded its investigations into the 13 cases and found there was no transmission beyond them, and that other Covid-19 cases who served the SHN at the hotel were not linked to those 13.

No staff tested positive through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, though 11 had positive serology test results, indicating that they were infected in the past.


Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) asked if MOH will consider establishing capability for scaled-up rapid whole genome sequencing of the virus from clinical samples, including nose swabs, so as to complement existing genome sequencing done on cultured virus.

It currently takes about four weeks to culture the virus and complete the genome sequencing.

In response, Mr Wong said that this is an established capability within the NPHL and, where possible, whole genome sequencing can be performed rapidly and directly on clinical samples of Covid-19-positive cases.

However, in samples that have low viral loads, it may be necessary for the virus to be cultured before the sequencing can be run, he said.

"We will continue to assess available and emerging laboratory technologies so we can improve our capabilities and enhance our responses."










Less than 1% of travellers entering Singapore without pre-departure tests found to have COVID-19
So far, only around 100 out of over 12,000 such travellers have tested positive
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

More than 12,000 travellers from higher-risk countries or regions entered Singapore without pre-departure tests from Nov 18 to Dec 27 last year, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

These are mostly Singapore citizens and permanent residents (PRs).

So far, around 100 - or 0.85 per cent of these travellers - have tested positive for Covid-19. None of these cases has resulted in local transmission, said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

While Singapore has required travellers from higher-risk places to take a pre-departure test since Nov 18 last year, this rule does not apply to citizens and PRs.

"We do not want to place additional barriers for them to return home if they have urgent need to do so," Mr Wong said.

As paediatric testing services may not be so easily available in some countries, those aged six and below are also exempted from such tests, he added.

"But through the stay-home notice, we ensure that community transmission risks for these travellers are minimised," said Mr Wong in response to a question by Workers' Party's Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) on how the Government manages the risk of incoming arrivals.

Mr Giam asked if there were any travellers in the 12,000 who were not Singaporeans, PRs or children under six. He also asked if any of the 100 or so people who later tested positive had not taken pre-departure tests even though they were supposed to do so.

Mr Wong said he has not looked at the data in great detail. But he stressed that travellers from such high-risk territories arriving in Singapore have to serve the stay-home notice, and cases that emerge are isolated and ring-fenced so that they do not leak into the local community.

While Singapore has been able to bring the virus situation under control and enter phase three of its reopening on Dec 28, the country cannot let its guard down, he said.

He noted that Covid-19 cases continue to climb in many countries.

In Singapore, there have been two family clusters due to marine workers who had been infected on board ships and spread the virus to their family members.

"It is a sobering reminder of how easily new infection clusters can break out," said Mr Wong, stressing that Singapore must continue to stay alert.

"The emergence of new viral strains that may be more infectious, such as the B.1.1.7 variant, is indeed very worrying," he said.

Singapore will tighten border restrictions where necessary and practical to limit the risk of imported cases, he said.

For instance, additional testing requirements have been introduced for travellers from Britain and South Africa, where the new strain has been circulating.

The testing regime and safe management measures for those working in the aviation and maritime sectors have also been tightened.

Singapore takes a calculated risk-based approach in how it manages its borders, Mr Wong noted.

Special travel arrangements with certain countries and territories have been set up to facilitate essential business and official travel, with the number of travellers controlled tightly. Travellers also have to stick to a controlled itinerary and strictly limit interactions with the wider community.

Responding to Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC), he cited how about 500 travellers have arrived from China through the fast lane that was established between Singapore and six provinces and municipalities in China last June.

On a daily basis, a far larger number of travellers entering Singapore are returning Singaporeans, PRs and long-term pass holders, he said. There are also new migrant workers - mostly construction workers and foreign domestic workers.

"We need them to build our homes and infrastructure, and to support the caregiving needs of our families," said Mr Wong.

The entry of returning residents and essential workers is allowed on a controlled basis, he added, with those from higher-risk nations placed on a 14-day stay-home notice at dedicated facilities and tested at the end of their quarantine.







COVID-19 rapid testing cost drops from $80 to under $50 per person
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

The cost of rapid Covid-19 testing has dropped from $80 per person - when such test kits were first deployed - to under $50 now, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

The costs of the antigen rapid testing, which include operation and manpower costs, are likely to come down further, he added.

"Over time, we can expect more innovative rapid test kits that are cheaper, faster and more convenient to administer," Mr Wong told Parliament in a ministerial statement on Singapore's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"These will enable us to test more extensively and conveniently, to detect positive cases and protect our population more comprehensively."


Antigen rapid testing has been used as a pre-event safety measure for large-scale activities. It complements the more sensitive, but slower polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Mr Wong noted how concerns had emerged among various groups when Singapore first deployed testing in a significant way.

Some people thought it would be a hassle, he said, while others felt there would be a stigma associated with being identified for testing.

"But I hope by now we can all appreciate and understand the reasons why testing is important and necessary."


The minister stressed that frequent and widespread testing is an important enabler for Singapore to detect coronavirus cases early, adding that testing will be ramped up in the coming months.

Singaporeans must start getting used to the idea of regular testing being a part of their lives during the pandemic, he said.

At present, anyone who sees a doctor with an acute respiratory infection or flu-like symptoms will be advised to take a PCR test, Mr Wong said.

On average, last month, more than 14,000 individuals were tested every week. This was how several recent cases were picked up, he added.

"It is very important for anyone who feels unwell to see the doctor immediately," Mr Wong said. "And if the doctor advises you to be tested, please comply with the doctor's instructions."

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force in charge of tackling the Covid-19 crisis, also underscored the importance of sticking to safe management measures, even as Singapore is in phase three of its reopening.

Strict social distancing measures were eased on Dec 28, meaning that Singaporeans could gather in groups larger than five - but not more than eight - for the first time in months.

Capacity limits at attractions, malls and places of worship also went up, while rules for marriage solemnisations and live performances were relaxed.

Mr Wong said: "Unfortunately, there are a few who persist in pushing their luck and disregarding the rules.

"We have stepped up checks over the festive period. Firm enforcement actions have been and will continue to be taken against any breaches."

He urged Singaporeans to keep up the good habits cultivated over the past few months, such as wearing masks, practising good hygiene, washing their hands regularly and not touching their faces with their hands.

Added Mr Wong: "Let's not forget the basic measures."







Over 4.2 million, or 78% of residents, using TraceTogether
Community centres that ran out of tokens to resume distribution soon: Lawrence Wong
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

More than 4.2 million people, or about 78 per cent of residents here, are now using TraceTogether, Education Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament yesterday.

Of these people, about two million use only the TraceTogether phone app. But there has been strong demand for the tokens, and community centres that had run out of them are set to resume distribution soon, he added.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force in charge of tackling the Covid-19 crisis, said the Government had initially not expected such a strong demand for the tokens, given that people can download the app.

Responding to MPs' questions about the TraceTogether programme, he also said there were some delays in the manufacturing schedule, which caused a delay in the distribution of tokens.

Mr Wong reiterated that after all residents who need a token have one, TraceTogether will have to be used at all SafeEntry checkpoints, either via the token or the app.

"We will give further information on this once the details and timelines are firmed up, and will provide adequate advance notice to all the affected establishments, so they can gear up and prepare," he said. Mr Wong added that the tokens will be distributed to school students who have not yet collected them.

Distribution of the tokens started last September at 38 community centres, but some venues ran out of stock after demand spiked, following the announcement that TraceTogether would be made mandatory to enter places such as restaurants and shopping malls.

Yesterday, Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) expressed dismay that even those who have downloaded the app are collecting the tokens, lamenting that it is "really quite a waste of resources".

He called on fellow MPs to encourage residents who already have the app to use it instead.

Thanking Mr Lim for making a plug for the app, Mr Wong said the Government will try to make the app more useful, with more features to encourage its use.

"But to the extent that Singaporeans want to collect the tokens, I think we do want to make them available, reduce any anxieties associated with the roll-out of TraceTogether-only SafeEntry, and that's why we are doing this one-time distribution," he added.

TraceTogether and SafeEntry will continue to be a key part of contact tracing operations as the country moves into phase three of its reopening, he said.


Asked by Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) if the cost of developing the tokens is justified, Mr Wong said that of the $10 million spent to date, "the results speak for themselves - TraceTogether has stopped the transmission of the virus in many instances, and has helped save many lives. So I have no doubt about the cost-effectiveness of this programme".

Previously, it took contact tracers two days to interview an infected person before they could establish his close contacts. Now they can rely on TraceTogether data and it takes only hours.

Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) had asked if it would have cost less to issue rechargeable tokens instead of the current ones that go flat after about six months.

Mr Wong said that given the need to roll out the tokens quickly, the Government had chosen the current design, which uses off-the-shelf components and requires less complexity, time and costs to make. He added that some of the tokens will have to be replaced, but some will need to have only their batteries replaced, and a process will be put in place for people to do so easily.

All the associated costs had been considered, he said, adding: "Overall, we still think that this approach, given the circumstances, given the urgency of rolling out the tokens, was a better approach."










Police can use TraceTogether data for criminal investigations
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2021

The police can obtain any data under Singapore's jurisdiction for the purposes of criminal investigations, and this includes TraceTogether data, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told the House yesterday.

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) had asked if data collected under the programme will be used for criminal investigations, a concern expressed by some online.

Mr Tan replied that TraceTogether was conceived and implemented for contact tracing to fight Covid-19, and measures had been put in place to protect the data. But this does not preclude its use in criminal investigations as the police are empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code to obtain the data for such probes, he added.

In this regard, he said, data collected by TraceTogether is treated like any other data under Singapore's jurisdiction.


Asked by Workers' Party's Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) if this is in violation of the TraceTogether privacy statement, Mr Tan said that other than for such investigations, the data is "indeed to be used only for contact tracing and for the purpose of fighting (the) Covid situation".

As custodian of the TraceTogether data, he added, the Government has put in place stringent measures such as allowing only authorised officers to access it, using it only for authorised purposes and storing it on secured servers. Under the Public Sector (Governance) Act, public officers who recklessly or knowingly disclose the data without authorisation or misuse it may be fined $5,000, jailed for two years, or both, he said.

His reply sparked debate online about whether this was an about-turn. Some cited past remarks by Education Minister Lawrence Wong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on TraceTogether data being used only for contact tracing.

Mr Wong's office has clarified that he did not say such data would be used only for contact tracing.

What he had said, in June, was: "There is no intention to use a TraceTogether app or TraceTogether token as a means of picking up breaches of existing rules... The app and the device, plus SafeEntry, combined are meant to provide us with information in a timely manner so that we can do speedy, and fast and effective contact tracing."


Yesterday, the TraceTogether Privacy Safeguards page was updated to reflect how the Criminal Procedure Code applies to the data. It states that data shared with the Health Ministry will be used for Covid-19 contact tracing.

This note was added: "Also, we want to be transparent with you. TraceTogether data may be used in circumstances where citizen safety and security is or has been affected.

"Authorised police officers may invoke Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) powers to request users to upload their TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. The Singapore Police Force is empowered under the CPC to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations."








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