Mr Speaker, I thank the Members for their support of the Bill.
2. I totally agree with some of the sentiments they have about the challenges we face, how far we have gone, and some of the things that we should look forward, in the coming year.
3. Members of the House have sought clarifications on some issues, and allow me to take the House through some of them.
Non-mRNA Vaccine and Therapeutic Options
4. Mr Yip Hon Weng asked how we can do more to encourage persons who are sceptical of the mRNA vaccines, to take up vaccination to protect themselves.
5. As previously highlighted in Parliament, the Novavax Nuvaxovid vaccine has been authorised by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and recommended by the Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination for use under our National Vaccination Programme as an alternative to the mRNA vaccines.
a. The first batch of the Nuvaxovid vaccines is expected to arrive sometime in the months ahead, barring any shipment delays.
b. Now, this will provide those who may have hesitancy receiving the mRNA vaccine an alternative, and I hope they do take this seriously and consider getting themselves vaccinated.
c. Even though Omicron causes less severe disease than the Delta strain, during this recent Omicron wave, the 3% of adults who were partially or unvaccinated contributed to 20% of our ICU cases, occupies two-thirds of our ICU beds, and caused about 30% or so of the mortality that we see. So they do pose a significant load on our healthcare resources.
d. Therefore, VDS is still necessary to protect the unvaccinated and prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed.
e. Once the Omicron wave has subsided, we will be in a better position to ease our measures further.
6. COVID-19 therapeutics was mentioned by Ms Sylvia Lim, and indeed they have been authorised by the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), but I must explain that they are meant to mitigate the risk of progression to severe illness from COVID-19 infection, whereas vaccination serves as a more preventive role, to go further upstream to prevent COVID-19 infection and not allowing severe illnesses to take place in the first place. Therapeutics are therefore complementary and are not substitutes to vaccination.
7. Let me share some data, which is actually quite compelling. Non-fully vaccinated adults infected with the Omicron variant – which supposedly is milder than Delta – are
a. up to 18 times more likely to require ICU care; and
b. 38 times more likely to die from COVID-19 infection, compared to vaccinated and boosted adults.
8. In fact, we see that the unvaccinated children between zero to 11 years old are at risk of Multi-System Inflammation Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) that some of you may have read about in the newspapers as well. The incidence in an unvaccinated child can be as high as 470 cases per million infections.
9. Even for the adult population, of all age groups, an unvaccinated person is at risk of one in 10 chance, of getting long-COVD after a COVID-19 infection, and it has been proven time and again, that vaccination can reduce this risk significantly. So, vaccination is still key in keeping us safe, both at a personal level, and at a systems level.
Simplification of Safe Management Measures (SMMs)
10. Mr Yip also sought clarification on the rationalisation of SMMs that the Multi-Ministry Taskforce recently announced and whether they can be further simplified. In fact, as explained, this rationalisation is itself a way to simplify the SMMs into just five key parameters. It makes it easier for the public to understand. In the coming weeks, as we see the cases continue to show a sustained decline, we can then further ease measures along these key parameters.
11. I note Mr Yip has actually filed a Parliamentary Question on the restrictions at coffee shops and canteens. I seek the member’s understanding that My colleagues at the Ministry of Sustainability and Environment will look into this and address it at a subsequent sitting.
Basis of Extension of Part 7 and Review for Fitness for Purpose
12. Mr Yip asked if we might consider a shorter period of extension of Part 7 and base the extension on specific indicators. Ms Sylvia Lim also mentioned that the control measures should be constantly reviewed for their efficacy and make sure that they are fitness for purpose. I agree with her.
13. In fact, we monitor the weekly infection growth rate, the R number, as an indicator of virus transmissibility, as well as other matrices like mortality rate, hospital occupancy and our healthcare manpower.
14. But each variant, as we have seen in the past two years, has somewhat different characteristics and slightly different behaviour, compared to each other. Therefore, no single set of parameters can be solely relied upon and we have to remain nimble and take all factors into account in designing any of these restrictions.
15. As mentioned in my opening speech, we take a calibrated approach in the control measures and have made progressive adjustments to the SMMs as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
16. Members will certainly recall that when the pandemic first started, we actually went into a Circuit Breaker and subsequently, a series of Heightened Alert Phases, as we cautiously, gradually, try to reopen social and economic activities to manage the infection risks in our largely unvaccinated population at the time.
17. With good progress in our national vaccination efforts towards the end of 2021, our collective resilience, immunity, and defence against the virus was strengthened so we were able to ride through the wave of Delta infection without resorting to a Circuit Breaker again. Therefore we have calibrated some of the measures in dealing with this virus as our whole situation evolves.
18. When the current Omicron wave hit us, our population had achieved a high vaccination and booster rate, allowing us to then continue on with our progressive reopening, and our move towards endemicity without further tightening of restrictions
19. Such a move would have been unthinkable one and a half years ago, and our healthcare system at the time would have been overwhelmed, if the same numbers of daily infections were to be seen at that point.
20. This clearly attests to the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccines and the trust and unity of our people in responding to the call to get vaccinated and boosted.
21. Our adjustments to Protocols 1, 2, 3 and the maintenance of some SMMs have allowed us to ride through this wave currently, without causing our healthcare system to collapse.
22. Like Members, I too, hope that we can eventually dispense with the restrictions.
23. In a best-case scenario where COVID-19 ceases to be a threat before the end of 12 months, regulations that are no longer relevant can be repealed and Part 7 can be allowed to lapse.
24. In the opposite scenario, if a variant that can cause more severe illness takes hold, the regulations under Part 7 will continue to be important for the protection of public health.
25. A one-year extension will provide the flexibility for us to adjust and calibrate COVID-19 measures accordingly.
26. I thank Members for their support of this amendment.
Mr Speaker, I beg to move.