Singapore Mulls How to Reopen Even as Virus Fight Far From Over

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  • Singapore’s battle with the Covid-19 pandemic has not yet reached the halfway point, according to a key government minister, even as the country mulls how to lift its partial lockdown measures.

    “Remember the fight is far from over,” Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who also co-chairs a ministerial taskforce to tackle the virus, told parliament on Monday. “This battle against the virus is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, and we are not even at the halfway mark.”

    While the city-state has and will continue to allow some gradual easing of its partial lockdown measures, key restrictions will remain in place until June 1, Wong said. Singapore will consider lifting its so-called “circuit breaker” measures if certain criteria are fulfilled, including reduced transmissions of the virus in the wider community as well as among migrant workers living in dormitories, Minister of Health Gan Kim Yong said on Monday.

    People wearing face masks walk along the promenade at Marina Bay in Singapore on May 4.Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images
    “We need to be assured that community transmission locally is stemmed, or very low,” Gan said in his own remarks in parliament. “Community cases should ideally fall to zero or single-digits daily, with very low numbers of unlinked cases, not just for one day, but sustained over a period of time.”

    The government will also need to make an assessment of the situation globally including that of individual countries to inform the extent and approach on reopening Singapore’s borders, Gan said. For any border re-opening, the Southeast Asian nation will likely “start small and selectively” and continue to impose a mix of isolation and test requirements, he said.

    As businesses in Singapore begin to reopen, the government will need to step up its testing capability and capacity as well. “These are the key enablers which give us the confidence to re-open,” Gan said. A nationwide testing strategy is being developed, even as the country scales up its testing capacity, according to Wong.

    Authorities said over the weekend that some workplaces and services will resume operations from May 12, while certain groups of students will be allowed to return to school the following week. Sectors such as manufacturing, which require workers to be onsite, should meanwhile start making preparations for the gradual re-opening of the economy in the coming weeks, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing told reporters.

    Other services will have to wait, Wong said Monday, adding the government will have to assess the risks of dining-in at food and beverage outlets “very carefully before such activities can resume.” Religious gatherings and services too may take some time to start up again.

    While Singapore moves to reopen its economy thanks in part to fewer infections in the wider community, the number of Covid-19 cases in cramped migrant dormitories has continued to surge. Singapore reported another 573 infections on Monday, bringing the country’s total to more than 18,000. Of the cumulative figure, the majority are linked to dormitories where more than 300,000 people live.

    “We have to bring the outbreak under control on the two fronts, in the community and in the migrant worker dormitories, so that we may resume activities gradually,” Wong said.

    In an effort to deal with the issue, the government has plans to further expand healthcare facilities and has more than doubled its daily testing capacity since early April, officials said last week. Singapore already has the capacity to conduct more than 8,000 polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests a day and will increase its testing capacity to up to 40,000 a day by later this year, the health minister said Monday.

    Despite its best efforts, the situation at the workers’ dormitories is a far cry from the early months of the pandemic when the government was lauded by international health experts for its virus response. Before the start of April, the country’s total number of confirmed infections were below 1,000.

    Beyond the impact to Singapore’s significant migrant labor force, the pandemic has had major economic consequences for the Southeast Asian trading hub. The country’s gross domestic product is forecast to contract as much as 4% this year while the unemployment rate climbed to its highest level since the third quarter of 2009.

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