Analysis & Comment

Don't get hung up over when phase 3 will happen in Singapore

When will phase three of Singapore’s reopening come around?

Singaporeans, myself included, have been looking forward to a further easing of measures when the country moves into its “new normal” stage amid the pandemic.

There may be a chance that it could take place before the end of this year, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong at a press conference earlier this month.

But he also set out three key conditions that, if not met, could see phase three delayed to January or “some time early next year”.

Of these three conditions, Singapore is “proceeding well” in terms of having sufficient testing capabilities in place, said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling the coronavirus outbreak.

Participation in the TraceTogether programme – the other key plank of reopening – is, however, still hovering around 50 per cent, some way from the 75 per cent needed for effective contact tracing.

An ongoing exercise to distribute tokens to residents islandwide is slated to wrap up only by the end of this year, after an unanticipated surge in demand at the start prompted the authorities to stagger distribution at community centres to spread out supply.

For the third condition – complying with and taking safe management measures seriously – the score card is mixed, with some people still flouting the rules.

The Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment recently flagged how a group of 20 people met for a birthday celebration at Labrador Nature Reserve.

In other cases, between 12 and 50 people were found gathering at various parks, birthday celebrations or baby showers, or playing sports at game courts in Housing Board estates.

Such large gatherings in defiance of the rules may not seem like a big deal in an environment where community transmission is low.

The number of Covid-19 cases in the community has been decreasing, from the low single digits to none in the past week.

With the virus situation in Singapore under control at the moment, it is perhaps natural to be lulled into a false sense of security.

But when Singapore further reopens its economy and borders, breaching the rules could well have severe implications.

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Singaporeans have already been warned to be mentally prepared that the number of community cases will rise – possibly up to the 30s – when measures are eased further.

In such a scenario, the number of undetected cases in the community would rise as well.

The danger of the coronavirus is that people appear to be most infectious just before they develop symptoms, and early in their illness. Asymptomatic carriers can easily and unwittingly infect others around them.

All it would take is for one such undetected Covid-19 case who flouts safe distancing rules to spark a large virus cluster.

The experiences of many countries elsewhere in the world provide cautionary tales of how the coronavirus can run rampant in places where it was previously under control.

SECOND WAVES

During the early months of the pandemic in spring, several central European countries won praise for their swift response to contain the coronavirus.

The Czech Republic was one of the first countries to impose a nationwide lockdown and require face masks to be worn. It loosened restrictions over time as the number of daily cases tapered off into the double digits.

On June 30, thousands of people sat at a 500m-long table on the Charles Bridge in Prague for a party to give the coronavirus a “symbolic farewell”.

This celebration proved premature, as the number of daily cases began to surge in September.

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The spike forced the Czech authorities to order a second lockdown, shutting schools and non-essential shops and services. Lawmakers subsequently voted to extend the state of emergency.

Daily cases in the Czech Republic peaked at around 15,700 early this month, and the country reported 5,407 new confirmed cases on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Europe, countries have registered record numbers of daily Covid-19 infections this month. Many are in full or partial lockdowns to prevent their healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.

Britain hit an all-time high of 33,470 daily infections on Nov 13, while Italy saw a record 40,902 new cases a day later.

Closer to home, Malaysia has been reporting new infections in the high hundreds since the middle of last month. The state of Sabah has been the epicentre of the disease in Malaysia for most of the past two months since the state election on Sept 26.

These examples illustrate how easily the coronavirus can gain a foothold and spread like wildfire once restrictions are eased.

They illustrate the perils when societies let their guard down.

In Singapore, residents have been patient with the pace of reopening, and generally compliant with safe distancing rules. But the desire for a return to old routines and lifestyles is palpable.

The crowds have returned to malls and dining enclaves.

During a recent visit to Dempsey Hill for a weekday lunch, I was struck by how full the carpark was. Every table at the restaurant I went to was occupied.

A colleague from The Straits Times photo desk went to Orchard Road last Saturday, and took photographs of sidewalks packed to the gills, with no safe distancing to speak of.

Crowds are good for businesses reeling from the impact of the pandemic. But they also heighten the risk of contracting an insidious virus that is ever ready to pounce and replicate itself.

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The number of people out and about is set to increase further in phase three, should the Government allow larger group sizes and raise capacity limits at public venues.

This is why we should not rush into the final phase of our reopening till all the pieces of our defence – contact tracing, testing and broad adherence to the rules – are in place.

Don’t get hung up over when phase three will happen. Instead, think about what each of us needs to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe when it rolls around.

PLAYING DEFENCE

One thing would be to download the TraceTogether app, or collect the token and carry it around.

With more residents on the programme, contact tracers will have an easier time pinpointing people exposed to a Covid-19 case and ring-fencing them before large clusters can form.

Another would be to follow the rules and avoid large gatherings in private or in public.

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It has been a long haul for Singapore to get to a stage where it has only 28 Covid-19 patients being treated in hospitals as at Thursday, with one in the intensive care unit and zero community cases in the past week.

But should the virus resurface in numerous unlinked cases, a return to phase one measures – where most retail outlets had to stay closed and dining out was not allowed – or even a second circuit breaker could well happen.

Closures will be painful and exact a severe toll on an economy that is still struggling to recover.

Thus the need for everyone to play their part in keeping the virus under check, and for the country to reopen carefully, lest it be forced into a premature shutdown.

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