Saturday, 23 April 2022

Singapore eases COVID-19 safe management measures from 26 April 2022

No limits on group size, masks not mandatory at workplaces as Singapore eases most COVID-19 rules

Singapore to lower DORSCON level from orange to yellow from 26 April 2022

TraceTogether no longer required in most settings from 26 April 2022
By Hariz Baharudin, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

There will no longer be limits to group sizes or workplace capacities here from next Tuesday (April 26), as Singapore announced a major easing of its remaining Covid-19 safety measures.

For the first time in more than two years, the Republic's disease outbreak response system condition (DORSCON) level will also be stepped down from orange to yellow, in what Health Minister Ong Ye Kung called a major milestone in Singapore's pandemic journey. DORSCON gives an indication of the disease outbreak situation and measures needed to control infections.

In a series of sweeping changes and the strongest push yet for a return to normal, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Friday that from next Tuesday, individuals will no longer be required to keep to a group of 10 people for mask-off activities, while the use of SafeEntry and TraceTogether will cease at most venues.

With the coronavirus situation largely under control, the cap on the number of unique visitors per household, previously 10 people at any one time, will be lifted. Safe distancing will also no longer be required between individuals or between groups, said the ministry.

At the same time, the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 urged Singaporeans to stay vigilant and maintain readiness in the face of potential risks, and stressed that the pandemic is not over.

Mr Ong, who is co-chair of the task force, said one such risk is of a new wave of infections emerging in the coming months as protection from vaccines and past infections wanes. Another worrying risk is of the emergence of a new variant of concern.

"This continues to be a potential curveball that may knock us back to square one, and we must be alert to that," he said at a press conference on Friday.

All workers may now also return to the workplace from next Tuesday, up from the current limit of 75 per cent of those who can work from home.

Workers will also be allowed to remove their masks at the workplace when they are not interacting physically with others and when they are not in customer-facing areas. Masks are still required indoors outside of work settings.

"While this concession will provide some flexibility for workers as more return to the workplace, everyone is advised to exercise social responsibility and maintain an appropriate safe distance from others while unmasked," said MOH.

The ministry added that even with these changes, employers are encouraged to retain and promote flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting and staggered work hours, as permanent features of the workplace.

There will also be no more capacity limit for large events and settings where there are more than 1,000 participants in mask-on settings. The current limit is 75 per cent of such capacities.

From next Tuesday, TraceTogether and SafeEntry check-ins will be required only at large events with more than 500 participants and certain nightlife establishments.

While F&B establishments will still require vaccination-differentiated measures, the onus will be on patrons and customers to ensure they are fully vaccinated, said Mr Ong.

The ministry said that with the current changes, almost all of Singapore's safe management measures, with the exception of the wearing of masks indoors, will be eased.

"However, this does not mean that they become moribund," said MOH, adding that these safety management measures continue to serve as the key levers to regulate social interactions, and the parameters can be adjusted if the situation requires it.

Noting that Singapore has gone through many rounds of restrictions, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Friday that the changes are a "very significant step forward" in Singapore's journey to live with Covid-19.

"Two years isn't that long, but it somehow feels like a lifetime ago because so much has happened, and we have been through so much together," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, virtually from the United States where he is on a work trip.

"And working together, we have been able to keep everyone in Singapore safe, to protect lives and livelihoods, and to achieve one of the lowest Covid-19 fatality rates in the world."

Singapore could not have done so without the contributions of each and every person, including its healthcare and front-line officers, and Mr Wong thanked everyone for playing their part.

"With these changes, we can now have a well-deserved breather after two very difficult years of fighting the virus. But let's always remember, we are getting closer to the finish line but the race is not over," he said.

"The pandemic is certainly not over. A new variant will emerge sooner or later… No one can predict what this next variant will be. And if need be, we may very well have to tighten our restrictions."

Singapore to lower DORSCON level from orange to yellow from April 26
By Clara Chong, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

The Republic will be stepping down its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) framework from orange to yellow on April 26, given the improving local Covid-19 situation.

DORSCON yellow generally means that, on the whole, life can go on as normal.

Singapore had stepped up its disease outbreak response to orange on Feb 7, 2020.

DORSCON is part of Singapore's pandemic preparedness plan that describes the current situation and what has to be done.

The stepping-down of the DORSCON level from orange to yellow is due to the improving local Covid-19 situation, where the number of daily cases is falling and stabilising; the high levels of vaccination; and the disease being typically mild, except in the unvaccinated and vulnerable groups such as the elderly.

This was announced on Friday (April 22) in a virtual multi-ministry task force press conference.

In the DORSCON colour coding system, green means that there are just minor problems.

Yellow - the status from April 26 - refers either to a mild infection, or a severe infection that is not spreading here, but of which the community needs to be careful.

Orange means that the disease is severe with transmission, but is generally contained, and has moderate to high public health impact.

When asked how useful the DORSCON level has been, given that Singapore had gone through a whole range of restrictions, including those in the red level despite never being at DORSCON red, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong said: "It may not be apparent to the members of the public, but DORSCON levels are very important from the point of view of the preparedness of the government agencies, including the healthcare institutions.

"When we raise the alert status. some of the actions have to be taken, including putting aside beds to be ready for Covid-19 cases and raising the alert level of the agencies... These actions are not sustainable for over a long period of time."

And in order for some of these agencies to run their normal operations on a more sustainable basis, the DORSCON level needs to be stepped down, so that it is more sustainable, he added said.

In an update on the local situation, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in its release that daily case numbers and Covid-19 hospitalisations had declined steadily in the past week.

The seven-day moving average of daily local case numbers has fallen from around 18,300 at its peak to under 3,100 in the past week.

More importantly, the number of hospitalisations has fallen from 1,726 at its peak to 266. The number of Covid-19-related intensive care unit (ICU) patients is now in single digits.

The incidence of severe illness has also remained low. In the past 28 days, 0.03 per cent and 0.2 per cent of local cases required ICU care and oxygen supplementation respectively.

TraceTogether no longer required in most settings from April 26
By Adeline Tan, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

From April 26, most places will not differentiate between people who are vaccinated and those who are not, except for higher-risk settings such as larger events, food and beverage (F&B) outlets, and nightlife establishments with dancing.

This means most venues will no longer require the public to check in using the TraceTogether application or token, except where vaccination status checks are still required.

Speaking at a press conference by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 on Friday (April 22), Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said the key consideration for implementing vaccination-differentiated safe management measures (VDS) was that those who were not fully vaccinated had accounted for a disproportionate number of patients falling severely ill or dying.

He said: "So when our hospitals were still under a lot of pressure, VDS was critical in ensuring that we did not exert too much burden on our healthcare system. However, now that the hospital's workload has eased considerably, there is less need now to retain VDS in its current form."

This comes as Singapore's vaccination coverage stands at among the highest in the world and hospitalisations continue to decline. More than 96 per cent of the eligible population have been fully vaccinated.

Under the differentiation measures, unvaccinated individuals could not dine out, go to shopping malls or visit attractions. They were also banned from indoor sports facilities, cinemas, museums and public libraries.

VDS will continue to apply in higher-risk settings, such as nightspots with dancing, where people gather in close proximity with prolonged and close interactions, Mr Ong said on Friday.

They will also remain at larger events with more than 500 participants at any one time, such as large-scale gala dinners, weddings and conferences, as these are potential super-spreading events, he added.

And they will continue to apply at F&B establishments, including restaurants, coffee shops and hawker centres.

However, F&B establishments will no longer need to conduct VDS checks on their customers, following hawker centres and coffee shops, which no longer conduct such checks.

The onus will instead be on the individuals dining in to abide by the rules, with random spot checks conducted to ensure that only fully vaccinated people are present.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) will also stop issuing health risk notices (HRNs) to close contacts of Covid-19 patients from April 26. Individuals infected with Covid-19 will also no longer need to submit details of household contacts online.

However, they should continue to exercise social responsibility, such as by informing close contacts to take necessary precautions, said MOH.

To complement the removal of HRNs, people who test positive for Covid-19 will also no longer need to upload their TraceTogether data or submit their tokens from April 26.

However, the public is still strongly encouraged to keep the application on their mobile phones or keep their tokens, should they be used again, such as in response to a new Covid-19 variant of concern.

The TT token or mobile app has been pre-programmed and may still collect data of the user’s contacts in the background. However, the data will only stay in the token or in the smartphone and will be purged after 25 days, Mr Ong said.

The TT token or mobile app will still be used for VDS checks at places that need it.

Mr Ong said: “However, we will restrict this application now to purely verifying your vaccination status. All SafeEntry data to a premise or event will not be retained and they will be purged within a day.”

Beware future COVID-19 variants and other risks as Singapore opens up further: Ong Ye Kung
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

Even as Singapore moves decisively to ease Covid-19 measures further across the board, there is still a need to be alert to potential risks in the future, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (April 22).

This is why Singapore will not declare a "freedom day" until the pandemic is truly over, he said, adding that the approach is, instead, to step down but not dismantle the measures completely.

The minister was speaking during a press conference held by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, which he co-chairs.

One immediate risk facing some countries is the resurgence of the Omicron infection wave.

Mr Ong said parts of the United States are already seeing this new wave, fuelled by the Omicron BA.2 strain, which is related to the original Omicron variant known as BA.1.

This is less of a concern for Singapore as the Omicron wave seen here was already driven by the BA.2 strain, Mr Ong said.

But he added that a new wave could emerge some months down the road when the protection conferred by vaccines and past infections begins to wane in the local population.

A more worrying possibility - the emergence of a new variant of concern.

"This continues to be a potential curveball that may knock us back to square one and we must be alert to these risks, remind ourselves not to be complacent and to be alert to possible future dangers," said Mr Ong.

He added that the authorities will look closely at two characteristics: whether any new variants can lead to more severe illnesses and deaths among those infected, and whether it is more infectious.

If a new variant causes more severe illness, Singapore may have to respond by bringing back contact tracing, isolation, quarantine and testing.

Such a variant will be short-lived if it cannot overtake the currently dominant Omicron variant, but Mr Ong said it is entirely possible for both a more deadly and more transmissible variant than Omicron to emerge.

"We may then need to hunker down for six months or more while scientists develop a new variant-specific vaccine," he said.

"This is one of the worst-case scenarios that we need to be psychologically prepared for."

Despite these potential risks, Mr Ong struck an optimistic tone.

"On the whole, things continue to look up for us. Our social resilience is strong and now we are in a comfortable position."

He said the current coronavirus situation here is stable despite an earlier easing of measures on March 29, with new cases staying around 3,000 a day.

This shows the population is now more resilient to the virus, he said, adding that the hospital situation is also steadily improving.

Flexibility allowed in workplace as 'very hard' for employees to wear mask all day: Lawrence Wong
By Hariz Baharudin, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

Employees at workstations will be allowed to remove masks because it will be difficult to be masked up constantly while back at the workplace, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Friday (April 22).

But even with this exception to the rule, which requires masks to be worn indoors, employees should still be mindful about safe distancing, added Mr Wong, who is co-chairman of the ministerial task force on Covid-19.

"It would be very hard to be back at work throughout the day and then wearing a mask and working. And therefore, this flexibility is extended for such an occasion, but we would continue to encourage everyone to exercise responsibility," said the minister during a press conference by the task force on Friday.

"And if you take off your mask when you're working, ensure that you're maintaining a safe distance from your colleagues and, obviously, do not gather together in a crowded setting."

The Ministry of Health (MOH) announced a major easing of Singapore's remaining Covid-19 safety measures from next Tuesday, including the lifting of limits to workplace capacities. This is up from the current 75 per cent cap for those who can work from home.

There are two conditions where workers will be allowed to remove their masks in the workplace, said Mr Wong.

The first is when they are not physically interacting with one another, and the second is when they are not in any customer-facing areas, where interaction is likely to happen.

"So if you're just back to the office in your workstation working, then we will allow you to take off your mask," said Mr Wong.

During the press conference, the task force was asked why the number of new Covid-19 cases in Singapore has not increased much after restrictions were eased from March 29.

This included the expansion of maximum group sizes to 10 people, mask wearing being made optional outdoors and the increase in capacity limits for events.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung sketched out three reasons for this.

First, Singapore has managed to achieve a high vaccination rate, which is one of the highest in the world, said Mr Ong. The Ministry of Health said on Friday that Singapore's vaccination coverage is at 96 per cent of its eligible population.

Second, the country has raised its collective resilience, given how there are "quite a number" of people who have been infected with Covid-19.

And third, Singapore has cooperated as a society by abiding by the rules, safety precautions and all the other measures that were put in place.

"So all these help. But it's a combination of factors. It's very hard to isolate which are the main factors," said Mr Ong.

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, who is also a co-chairman of the task force, reiterated the importance of the cooperation and support of Singaporeans, as well as their trust in the system.

But the country must not become complacent, given how new variants can emerge from time to time, and that there are ongoing waves in different parts of the world.

"We must continue to remain vigilant even as we continue to ease up our measures. And in the weeks to come, we can expect that the number of cases may increase because of a greater easing this time round and, therefore, we also have to remain vigilant and continue to monitor the situation and be prepared to adjust our measures from time to time," said Mr Gan.

Singapore could not have got to where it is without the contributions of each and every person, including its healthcare and front-line officers, said Mr Wong, as he thanked everyone for playing their part.

"We can now have a well-deserved breather after two very difficult years of fighting the virus. But let's always remember, we are getting closer to the finish line but the race is not over," he said.

"The pandemic is certainly not over. A new variant will emerge sooner or later… No one can predict what this next variant will be. And if need be, we may very well have to tighten our restrictions."

People aged 60 to 79 can take second COVID-19 vaccine booster if they wish to
By Prisca Ang, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

People aged 60 to 79 can now take a second Covid-19 vaccine booster shot if they wish to, even though the Expert Committee on Covid-19 has yet to recommend that they do so.

The second booster dose should be administered about five months after a person receives the first booster, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung at a press conference held by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 on Friday (April 22).

Those aged 60 and above who would like to receive their second booster can walk in before 7pm to any vaccination centre offering mRNA vaccines.

These boosters are currently recommended for those aged 80 and above, residents of aged-care facilities and medically vulnerable people.

Some 17,200 seniors have taken or booked their second booster within two weeks of the committee's recommendation, representing about 30 per cent of those eligible, with many more in this age group to become eligible in the months ahead, said Mr Ong.

Singapore’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak said local data shows that vaccine effectiveness against severe disease remains high for some time after completing both the primary course and a booster dose.

He added: “Local studies of vaccine effectiveness against severe disease for people above the age of 60 years remains well above 80 per cent and in some stages, reaches 90 per cent at the 120 to 180-day mark after booster vaccination. Vaccine effectiveness against severe disease is also high, following the booster dose, for hospitalisation.”

He said, however, that some waning of effectiveness against severe disease takes place over time among seniors who have received their boosters.

Data from countries such as Israel with more mature vaccination programmes shows that seniors and the medically vulnerable can get additional protection against severe infection through a second booster, he said.

“In particular, the overseas data shows the greatest benefit to decreasing severe disease risk is in persons above the age of 80 following the second booster vaccination dose,” said Associate Professor Mak.

He added that vaccination effectiveness data also shows some benefit from a second booster dose for those aged between 70 and 79, and those aged between 60 and 69 to a slightly lesser extent, although not to the same extent as those in the above-80 group.

“The incidence of severe infection in these age groups is lower compared with those above 80,” he said.

Data suggests that the second booster dose is currently not as beneficial for younger age groups – for example, those aged between 12 and 60 – as the risk of getting severe infection is much lower and less associated with the presence of chronic medical conditions that render individuals vulnerable, he added.

“If we need to provide the second booster dose for the younger population, this is more appropriate as a strategy to augment immune protection at a time when we are experiencing a new wave of a highly transmissible or highly virulent novel variant of concern, rather than at a time when the situation is improving and the community caseload has stabilised,” said Prof Mak.

The Expert Committee on Covid-19 will also review whether there is a need for more targeted booster vaccinations in sub-populations where the immune protection from earlier primary vaccinations is still not optimal, he added.

The committee has also recommended a booster dose for recovered persons aged 12 and above who have completed their primary vaccination course, in the light of waning immunity.

The booster should not be delayed beyond nine months after completing the primary vaccination series, and should be received at least 28 days after the infection.

From June 1, these recovered people will need to receive the booster dose within nine months of their last primary vaccination dose, in order to maintain their vaccinated status.

Individuals may walk into any vaccination centre before 7pm to receive their booster.

The Ministry of Health said on Friday that booster vaccinations for all recovered migrant workers living in dormitories, as well as non-dormitory dwelling work permit-holder migrant workers in the construction, marine and process sectors will be scheduled and announced later.

Mr Ong added that there are two key considerations when deciding on a suitable time to proactively roll out a second booster to the general population.

"One, whether subsequent Omicron or new variant waves break out in other countries. When they do, we will then have a good idea when a new wave may emerge in Singapore, and then we roll out a second booster before that happens," he said.

The second indicator is the level of vaccine protection against severe illness in the population who have already had their first booster.

Mr Ong said: "So far, this has been holding up well as vaccine efficacy against severe illness across different age groups continues to stay very high, well above 80 per cent.

"Scientists think that this can hold out for as long as one to two years, maybe even longer. We will watch out for early signs of waning of vaccine efficacy against severe illness, which will indicate the need for a second booster."

In considering which vaccines to use for a second booster for the general population, he said this depends on the nature of the new variant of concern - for instance, if it is a derivative of the Omicron variant with similar characteristics and there is a high chance that current vaccines will continue to confer good protection against the virus.

"However, if the new variant of concern is more dangerous than the Omicron variant, then it may require a different response strategy as far as the second booster is concerned," he said.

Two characteristics can be used to determine if a variant is more dangerous - whether it leads to more severe illnesses and deaths among infected individuals, and if it is more infectious than Omicron and dominates it.

"If it is both... we may then need to hunker down for six months or more while scientists develop a new variant-specific vaccine. This is one of the worst-case scenarios that we need to be psychologically prepared for," he added.

Flexible work arrangements should be a permanent feature: Tripartite statement
By Clement Yong, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2022

Employers are encouraged to continue offering flexible work arrangements to employees even though all workers can now return to their offices, a tripartite statement on Friday (April 22) said.

Even as workplace Covid-19 measures were relaxed on Friday, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) called for practices such as working from home and staggered hours at the workplace to be made permanent features.

They said continuing with these work policies can help companies attract talent and help employers tap a larger pool of manpower, some of whom may need some time to take care of their dependants.

Measures such as ad hoc time off and part-time work can also be considered for front-line workers who are unable to work remotely so that they can also balance personal or family responsibilities with work requirements.

The Government said on Friday that all workers can now return to the workplace, an increase from the current limit of 75 per cent of those who can work from home.

Companies can also make their own decisions on workforce vaccination measures, where previous requirements permitted only those who are vaccinated to return to their workplace.

MOM is expected to provide more details in due course.

The statement from MOM, NTUC and SNEF read: "Globally, employers increasingly embrace flexible work arrangements as part of the future of work. Flexible work arrangements help employees achieve better work-life harmony and promote a more engaged and productive workforce.

"This in turn benefits employers. Employers should regularly engage with employees in deciding on the flexible work arrangements that best suit business and work-life needs."

The tripartite partners suggested that jobs should be redesigned where needed so more employees can work remotely.

Those who work from home must also still be appraised and remunerated fairly and objectively.

"Trust should be maintained between employers and employees, through regular and open communication to discuss what flexible work arrangements are practical and sustainable," they said.

"Employees should use flexible work arrangements responsibly and ensure continued work productivity. Flexible work arrangements are not an entitlement and the requirements of the job take precedence."

The public sector will take the lead by continuing with hybrid work so that those in eligible job roles will still be allowed to work from home for an average of two days a week.

There are several ways to do this, the tripartite partners said, including requiring employees to report to the office for meetings while allowing other work to be done off-site. Employers can also consider using more satellite offices or co-working spaces so that their workers can work closer to home.

The authorities are currently developing a set of guidelines for flexible work arrangements, which will be put out by 2024 after stakeholders are consulted.

Employers, union leaders, human resource professionals and others are also being roped in as work-life ambassadors to continue championing work-life practices at their workplaces.

Easing of COVID-19 measures will bring Singapore almost all the way to how things were before: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Hariz Baharudin, Assistant News Editor, The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2022

The large-scale easing of Covid-19 measures will bring Singapore almost to a place where it was before the pandemic hit the country in 2020, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday (April 23).

In a Facebook post the day after these changes were announced, he called on Singaporeans to continue to be socially responsible and take care of one another.

"These changes will bring us almost all the way to how things were before Covid-19. I trust that everyone will remain socially responsible - wearing masks when indoors, self-isolating if you feel unwell, and watching out for one another," PM Lee wrote.

The Ministry of Health announced on Friday that from next Tuesday, there will no longer be limits to group sizes or workplace capacities here.

Vaccination-differentiated safe management measures will also be removed for most settings, and the use of TraceTogether and SafeEntry will cease in most situations.

The Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level, which indicates the current disease situation, will also be lowered from orange to yellow from Tuesday.

The country has been at Dorscon orange since Feb 7, 2020.

The scaling back of these safety measures, which PM Lee said Singapore is cheered by, comes as daily infection numbers continue to fall and have stabilised, giving the Government the confidence to proceed with further easing of community and travel measures.

In his post, PM Lee said that while he was on a walk at the Botanic Gardens last weekend, he spotted a yoga group he had encountered last year. Then, they were masked up practising their poses.

This time, however, the same group were not wearing masks. Masks became optional in outdoor settings from March 29.

"Impressed by their dedication keeping up their exercise routine despite the pandemic. With the easing of restrictions, it is a joy to breathe the fresh outdoor air again without a mask," PM Lee added.


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