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Opening Remarks by Minister for Health Mr Ong Ye Kung at COVID-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce Press Conference on 20 November 2021

1. Let me try to explain the situation we are in and how we came to these set of decisions. We have come to a critical juncture in our battle against COVID-19. Be mindful that we are still going through a fairly big wave of transmission, which started in the last week of August. In the last week of August, there were about 100 cases a day, and it went through five cycles of doubling and reached a seven-day moving average of around 3,200 in end-October, and it peaked then.

2. After the peak, the daily cases stabilised, and started to come down, and as it comes down, you will then notice the week-on-week infection ratio has been falling below 1.0. That prompted the MTF to relax the rules quite cautiously last week, to allow five persons from the same household to dine together. For the past eleven days we watched the situation very closely, and thankfully and fortunately, cases did not go up. And in fact, it was even more subdued.

3. As we come to the end of the Stabilisation Phase, we have to decide our next steps. I will further explain the pandemic situation, while Minister Lawrence Wong will further elaborate on the measures we are taking. I will run through a few indicators.

4. Number one, is the stock of patients. As the number of infections come down, so has the total stock of patients in our system. Most of them – a great majority – are on the Home Recovery Programme (HRP). It has stayed consistently above 20,000 patients at any one time throughout October, peaking at 26,386 on 29 October. Since then, it has been decreasing. It dipped below 20,000 on 7 November, and now it is just over 15,000. Every day, we continue to discharge about 3,000 patients – also a majority from HRP.

5. Second indicator – the reproduction number of the disease, or R. This has been held at around 0.9 to 1. And I want to mention that we held R at about 0.9 to 1 despite a very noticeable increase in footfall throughout the island over the past one to two weeks, because more and more people are coming out and socialising. And in fact, today the footfall that we measure across popular destinations is only about 5 percent less than at the peak of the Preparatory Phase in early September. And if you remember, during the Preparatory Phase we allowed 5 persons dining. This is a good sign. It means that more human activity did not drive infections and hospitalisations up. And what it means is this – that our society is becoming more resilient to the virus.

6. The third indicator is severe illnesses. At the peak of our current transmission wave, the average number of patients hospitalised, needing oxygen supplementation or ICU care, was about 420. That was the stock number at the peak. Now it is around 370. If we zoom into just ICU, we had about 140 patients during the last week of October, at the peak of this transmission. This has come down to about 110 now.

7. Next, incidence of severe illnesses. Very importantly, the incidence of patients falling severely ill, needing ICU care or died, has come down. So we track that number longitudinally from August to September to October. The number has fallen from 12 per 1,000 infected individuals, to six per 1,000 and then to five per 1,000 respectively. And it is likely that if we track beyond October, to have a November number, I think very likely, it will go even below five. And this is significant, which means that every time you get 1,000 people infected, you can now count on the fact that a fewer number will fall severely ill, needing ICU care, or die compared to August or September, when the number was higher then.

8. What has contributed to this decline is the increased uptake of boosters by vaccinated seniors, and therefore even if they are infected, with boosters, they are less likely to fall severely ill. But more importantly, is that fewer unvaccinated seniors are now getting infected. For every 1,000 people who are infected now, you expect fewer unvaccinated seniors amongst that 1,000. That impact is direct and significant, because this group of unvaccinated seniors, is 1 percent of our total population, 6 percent of population of our seniors, but two-thirds of the population in ICUs.

9. At its peak, on 19 October, we had 119 unvaccinated seniors infected that day. Many of them ended up in ICU or died. In the last week of October, the number has eased to an average of 60 cases a day. In the past week, we have less than 40 cases of unvaccinated seniors being infected a day.

10. Why has the number fallen? A lot of work has gone in to bring this about.

11. Number one, the population of unvaccinated seniors continues to shrink as our vaccination teams continue to reach out to them, even in their homes. In end October, we had 65,000 unvaccinated seniors who are 60 years and above. As of today, we have gone below 60,000. In fact, about just slightly above 59,000. So 5,000 more became fully vaccinated in a matter of two weeks, and I think many lives were saved as a result.

12. Second, number two, due to our Vaccination-Differentiated Safe Management Measures (VDS). Because of VDS, unvaccinated seniors are restricted in their access to crowded places, especially in places where people tend to pull down their masks and talk, such as dining at hawker centres and coffee shops, and so they are now much less likely to be exposed to the virus. And in order to resume their activities, many of them chose to walk into our vaccination centres and get themselves vaccinated, which is a very good thing.

13. In summary, we are in a better position compared to end-October, the peak of the transmission wave. But it is early days, and we are far from out of the woods. We still have a couple of thousands of infections a day, and people continue to be admitted to ICU and every day, we do see people die. We know all these continue to worry many Singaporeans. Our bicycle has slowed down its descent to a controllable pace, but it is still some distance away from safety.

14. As we look down the slope on our bicycle, it is a steep slope down still. But we know we have a few brakes at our disposal and can work effectively in the coming weeks and months.

15. One, is our booster programme which is gathering pace. We have administered over 1.2 million doses, covering 21 percent of our population. At some point, we will need everyone who has two doses of the vaccine to get a third one. And indeed, with the Delta variant now, there is an emerging view among the clinical and scientific communities globally that this is really a three-dose vaccine, just like Hepatitis B.

16. We have thus far administered boosters after at least a five-month interval for seniors, and six months for those aged 30 to 59. Our Expert Committee has further studied the latest international data and has now recommended that we can standardise at five months for all age groups. We will begin this new arrangement from 24 November.

17. With this change, from now to end December, we hope to administer about 1.5 million doses of boosters, raising our coverage from 21 percent of our population to about 50 percent. This means by year end, half of our population will be freshly boosted with high levels of antibodies.

18. In addition, many more individuals will recover safely from COVID-19 infections and add to our societal resilience. For the few remaining unvaccinated, it is not too late to come forward and get yourself vaccinated.

19. We also now have a strong VDS system already in place, to protect the vulnerable, and we are further rolling it out to hawker centres and then coffee shops. This makes a world of difference, as I mentioned earlier, it makes sure that for every 1,000 infections, fewer and fewer unvaccinated seniors are amongst them. We need to implement it well and we need to seek the understanding of everyone, that we need to do this.

20. There is one more additional consideration, which is timing. We are now in end-November. When we cross to December, there is a certain mood, and then we are moving closer towards year-end festivities, and there will be pent-up demand to want to go out. So as far as possible, we do not want to do an opening move that is significant in the month of December. Because we risk, once opening, social activities will spike up very high, and it can drive and spark off a new wave. So if we can open up earlier, to allow society, families, friends, to gradually ease into a festive mood.

21. We therefore have before us a valuable window of opportunity for us to open up further. It will likely lead to more social interactions, which will increase the circulation of the virus. It may also result in more cases daily and even more hospitalisations. However, the impact of this – on the healthcare system, healthcare outcomes – will be counteracted by the three things I just mentioned – boosters – that is gathering pace – safe recovery from COVID-19 and then VDS.

22. If we miss this window and delay opening until next year, the protection from boosters against infection and symptomatic disease may weaken by then, and the case numbers and public health outcome will likely be worse than if we open up now. That is why we come to the decision today, that we will make a move to open up from two persons per group, to five persons per group.

23. Thank you.

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