As countries around the Asia-Pacific region tighten restrictions once again to curb potential breakouts of the Delta coronavirus variant, Singapore has laid out a new vision for life to return to normal.
The roadmap, proposed by three members of Singapore’s Covid-19 task force, would scrap lockdowns and mass contact tracing and allow for a return to quarantine-free travel and the resumption of large gatherings. It would even stop counting the daily Covid cases.
The proposal is a radical departure from the so-called “zero transmission” model adopted by several countries and territories – including rival Asian business hub Hong Kong – which have so far proved successful at avoiding large outbreaks.
But this “zero transmission” model, which requires stringent, often punishing quarantine measures, will be almost impossible to maintain as new variants spread, and long term is simply not sustainable, the task force members claim. Instead, they say living with Covid can be done.
“The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst,” said Singapore’s Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, in an op-ed in the Straits Times last week.
“We can turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza, hand, foot and mouth disease, or chickenpox, and get on with our lives.”
It’s a bold plan that could become a template for other countries looking to return to normal life and resume travel and tourism – and offer hope for frustrated residents eager to get their lives back on track after 18 months of pandemic restrictions.
How they’ll do it
The key for a lighter approach to the pandemic? High vaccination rates.
Singapore is on track for two-thirds of its population to have received their first vaccine dose by early July, and aims to fully vaccinate that figure by August 9.
“Vaccines are highly effective in reducing the risk of infection as well as transmission. Even if you are infected, vaccines will help prevent severe Covid-19 symptoms,” the ministers said.
As more people get vaccinated, the way Singapore monitors daily Covid-19 infection numbers will change. Following a path similar to how it tracks influenza infections, Singapore will monitor those who fall seriously sick or how many are in intensive care units. Infected people will be allowed to recover at home.
“We will worry less about the health care system being overwhelmed,” they said.
With new, potentially more contagious variants posing a concern around the world, the minsters said booster shots may be needed in the future and suggested a “multi-year vaccination program” be established.
While testing and surveillance will still be needed, they propose conducting tests in specific scenarios such as ahead of large social events, or when traveling back from abroad, rather than to track and quarantine close contacts.
To do this, the ministers say faster and easier methods of testing will be rolled out as PCR tests take too long to provide results. Other methods “in the pipeline” include breathalysers that take about one to two minutes to produce results.
In time, more treatments will become available for Covid-19. Already, the ministers point to therapeutics that are effective in treating the critically ill, and quicken recovery, as well as reducing severity of illness and deaths.
They also say citizens will be urged to practice “social responsibility” such as good hygiene and staying away from crowds when feeling unwell to reduce transmission rates.
“With vaccination, testing, treatment and social responsibility, it may mean that in the near future, when someone gets Covid-19, our response can be very different from now,” the ministers said.
Other countries remain cautious
Singapore had been held up as a success story in controlling the virus, thanks to strict border controls, instituting quarantines and contact tracing as well as rules on social gatherings and mask wearing.
It managed to contain earlier outbreaks, including a peak of cases in April last year. In May, a small cluster of cases was connected to Changi Airport employees, prompting tighter curbs.
The city-state of 5.7 million people has been averaging about 18 cases a day in the past month and has recorded just 36 deaths since the pandemic started, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Its new approach is a departure from other places that have been successful at managing the pandemic but have comparatively low vaccination rates and have recently reimposed tougher restrictions.
Several Australian states put their capital cities – home to around 10.2 million people – into lockdown on Monday over concerns the Delta strain could spark significant outbreaks.
Australia was celebrated for its initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but vaccine rates are low. Australia has fully vaccinated nearly 5% of its population, compared with more than 46% in the United States and 48% in the UK, according to Our World in Data.
New Zealand said it was considering making masks compulsory at high alert levels and halted a quarantine-free travel bubble with neighboring Australia following an outbreak of the Delta variant.
And financial center Hong Kong, where vaccine hesitancy is high and only 21% of the population has been fully vaccinated, announced it will suspend passenger flights from the United Kingdom from July 1, over rising cases of the Delta variant there.
Meanwhile, mainland China may have administered more than 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses, but it is thinking about keeping its borders shut for another year. The southern city of Guangzhou, a major international travel hub, is planning on building a huge quarantine center with 5,000 rooms to house travelers and Covid-19 close contacts over fears of the Delta variant’s spread, according to state-run newspaper Global Times.
CNN’s Pauline Lockwood contributed reporting.