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Opening Remarks By Minister For Health Mr Ong Ye Kung At COVID-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce Press Conference On 22 April 2022

1.      Today is really a happy day and marks a very important milestone as we are able to announce a reduction of our pandemic status from DORSCON Orange to Yellow. We know the danger is of course not over, but we can all breathe easier now. This is really a result of all our hard work, perseverance and collective effort.

2.      I want to especially thank all our healthcare personnel and workers, everyone at the frontline, and all the operational staff dealing with case management, testing, vaccination planning, health protocols etc., for all your contribution and sacrifices that have led to the milestone today. You are the frontline workers, the backend heroes and also the last line of defence. You made today possible. Thank you very much.

Current Situation

3.      Let me briefly talk about the current pandemic situation.

4.      One, the pandemic situation remains stable. This is despite our decisive move on 29 March this year to open up borders and ease up on our Safe Management Measures (SMMs). Notwithstanding that move, daily cases had been trending down over the past three weeks and have stabilised at about 3,000 per day. It reflects the fact that our society is now a lot more resilient towards the COVID-19 virus.

5.      Second, the situation in our hospitals is steadily improving. The Director of Medical Services (DMS) will elaborate further. I have earlier described a pandemic with rising cases, like riding a bicycle downhill. It just goes faster and faster, and we need to apply the brakes until we land at a safety zone. I think we have landed at a safe flat ground now. But we need to keep on paddling, because if not the bicycle will stop and we will still fall. But we are now in a good position – flat ground, stable, steadily improving.

6.      Third, notwithstanding all these improvements and that our bicycle is on the flat ground, we still need to be alert to risks over the horizon.  What are these risks? One immediate risk facing some countries is a resurgence of the Omicron infection wave. This has started to happen in some parts of the US for example, and is driven by the BA.2 strain of the Omicron variant.  However, this is less of a concern for us, given that the Omicron wave that we went through was already driven by the BA.2 strain.

7.      A potential risk months down the road is when the protection conferred by vaccines and infection starts to wane in our population, and then a new wave may emerge. To date, we have not seen new waves driven by a similar strain as the earlier waves in other countries. But we should expect this to happen, even if they are not as large or severe as the previous wave that just passed.

8.      The last and the most worrying risk, is the emergence of a new Variant of Concern (VOC). This continues to be a major potential curveball that may knock us back to square one, and we must be alert to that.   

Our Posture

9.      These risks remind us not to be complacent and to be alert to possible future dangers.  But on the whole, things continue to look up for us; our social resilience is strong, and we are now in a comfortable position.

10.      We can therefore afford to take further steps to restore pre-COVID-19 normalcy.  However, given the risks over the horizon, we should not declare a Freedom Day until the pandemic is truly over. Instead, we will step down, but not dismantle, our measures completely. By keeping certain levels of precaution, we remind ourselves that the pandemic is not over, and we retain the ability to reactivate selected measures if and when the situation requires them.

11.      So, we should expect this new posture announced today to last for some time, perhaps several months, so long as our situation remains stable. Minister Lawrence Wong will elaborate on the SMMs aspect of the posture, I will talk about four things – Vaccination-Differentiated SMMs (VDS), SafeEntry (SE), TraceTogether (TT) and the second booster shot.

Vaccination-Differentiated SMMs, SafeEntry and TraceTogether

12.      Let me start with VDS. I have explained the need to retain VDS in Parliament recently, earlier this month. The key consideration is that individuals who are not fully vaccinated account for a disproportionate number of patients who are fall severely ill or die.

13.      When our hospitals were still under a lot of pressure, VDS was critical in ensuring that we do not assert too much burden on our healthcare system.  However, now that hospitals’ workload has eased considerably, there is less need now to retain VDS in its current form.

14.      We will therefore step down but not dismantle VDS, by reducing the settings that require it. In particular, settings such as places of worship, malls, retail shops, supermarkets, etc., will no longer need to maintain VDS.

15.      It also means that the onus now falls on the individuals who are not fully vaccinated to take necessary precautions – to avoid crowded places so that you minimise your chance of being infected and falling severely ill.

16.      We will however not remove VDS completely. It will continue to apply to the following higher-risk settings:

a.      One is nightspots with dancing, because this is a unique setting where lots of people gather with prolonged and close interaction with one and another.

b.      Two is larger events with at least 500 participants at any one time.  Some examples are the larger scale gala dinners, weddings, Dinner & Dance, conference dinners. These are potential super spreading events.

c.      Three is F&B outlets, mainly restaurants, hawker centres and coffee shops, because these are mask-off settings frequented by many members of public on a permanent basis, and including members of public who may be vulnerable.

17.      I want to specifically address the issue of workplaces, where we have in place a policy called Workforce Vaccination Measures (WVM). WVM requires an employer to ensure that employees who return to the workplace need to be fully vaccinated.  With the stepping down of VDS across most settings, we will also step down the WVM policy.

18.      Nevertheless, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has been discussing with the tripartite partners, who agree that given the significant pandemic risks that still exist in the coming months, businesses should be given the flexibility to impose vaccination-related instructions for employees for business continuity and workplace health and safety reasons, even though it is no longer a national requirement.

19.      The tripartite partners will therefore be updating their guidelines on the implementation of vaccination-related instructions for businesses or for their employees, to provide them with this flexibility to impose vaccination-related measures based on their specific business considerations. MOM will be providing more details.

20.      Second aspect I want to talk about – SafeEntry.  As we stand down VDS for various settings, such as malls, supermarkets and places of worships, venue owners can deactivate their SafeEntry operations.

21.      However, where VDS still applies, namely, certain nightspots and larger events with more than 500 people at any one time, SafeEntry check-in will still be required to verify the vaccination and test status of participants. This is operationally familiar and convenient to implement for nightspot operators and event organisers.

22.      As for restaurants, coffee shops and hawker centres – VDS applies but we will instead rely on random checks on individuals by service staff and enforcement officers.  This is already the practice for hawker centres and coffee shops today, but we will now extend the arrangement to restaurants. That means mandated SE entry check-ins can be removed at all F&B establishments. The onus is on the patrons and customers to ensure that they are fully vaccinated before dining in an F&B establishment. 

23.      Overall, given this posture, we will see significant reduction in SafeEntry check-in points all across the island, and in most places we visit on a day-to-day basis. This will reduce cost of operations, and is another key psychological step towards resuming a pre-COVID-19 normalcy.

24.      Third aspect I want to talk about is TraceTogether.  TT is both an app as well as a token, and serves two purposes today.

25.      One purpose is as a contact tracing tool, for specific settings.  As the epidemic situation has improved, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has discussed with the relevant agencies, who agreed to step down contact tracing and instead focus on controlling outbreaks.

26.      We will also cease the issuance of Health Risk Notices (HRN) nationally. MOH would instead like to remind everyone to continue to practise personal and collective responsibility by informing your close contacts if you are infected with COVID-19, and the close contacts in turn should continue to follow Protocol 3. Test yourself to be negative before leaving your homes.

27.      Therefore, from 26 April 2022, we will step down the use of TT as a contact tracing tool. This means we will no longer require infected individuals to upload TT app data or to collect their TT tokens to upload the data.

28.      However, there is still a need to remain vigilant and to maintain a state of readiness. So please keep your TT app in your smartphone and retain your token, in case there is a need to reactivate TT and SE again.

29.      If you keep your TT token or app in your smart phone, they have been pre-programmed and they may still collect data of your contacts in the background, but the data will stay only in your token or smartphone and will be purged after 25 days.

30.      The other purpose of TT is to be used in conjunction with SafeEntry, to verify your vaccination status when you check into a venue that requires VDS. This is another reason to keep your TT app in your smartphone and retain your TT token, in case you want to go to a nightclub, gala dinner or wedding where VDS applies.

31.      However, we will restrict this application now to purely verify your vaccination status.  All SafeEntry data to a premise or event will not be retained and they will be purged within a day.

32.      I want to clarify that as in the current situation and as explained in Parliament last year, any data that is generated by the TT app and token may be used by police officers and law enforcement officers for criminal investigations and proceedings in respect of serious offences, in line with the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act. If a serious criminal offence has been committed, the Police must be able to use this data to bring the perpetrators to justice, seek redress for the victims, and protect society at large.

33.      Finally, let me talk about the second booster shot. As we expect COVID-19 to become endemic and stay with us, the general consensus amongst scientists is that further booster shots will be necessary, sooner or later. MOH and our Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination (ECV19) agree with that view.

34.      This is not different from individuals having to take your annual vaccinations for Influenza, which is an endemic disease.  The question is when second boosters should be administered, and what vaccines to use.

35.      On the issue of timing, international practices vary. The US and Israel are pushing ahead, while the EU plans to administer second booster later in the year, in anticipation of a winter wave towards the end of the year. 

36.      We can think of a second booster shot like buying an insurance protection – you buy travel insurance before you travel, you buy car insurance before you rent a car and drive. Booster shots likewise need to pre-empt the outbreak of a new wave of infections. Administer too early, the chances are it will be wasted. Administer too late, and damage would have already been done. We have got to catch the timing right.

37.      To determine a suitable time to proactively administer a further booster, MOH is closely monitoring two indicators.

38.      One, whether subsequent Omicron or new variant waves break out in other countries. When they do, we will have a good idea when a new wave may emerge in Singapore and then we roll out a second booster before that happens.

39.      The second indicator that we look at is the level of vaccine protection against severe illness in our population who already had their first booster. So far, this has been holding up well, as vaccine efficacy against severe illness across age groups continues to stay high, well above 80%. Many scientists think this can hold out for as long as one to two years, maybe even longer. We will watch out for early signs of waning of vaccine efficacy against severe illness, which will indicate the need for a further dose of booster.

40.      As of now, MOH is recommending further booster shots for seniors aged 80 and above, those living in aged care facilities and individuals who are medically vulnerable. To date, within two weeks of our recommendation, 17,200 seniors have taken or booked their second booster. This is about 30% of those eligible, and many more in this age group will become eligible in the months ahead. This is very encouraging to us, as it shows us that people are getting used to the idea of taking a booster and protecting themselves.

41.      For individuals aged 60 to 79, we do not yet recommend that they take the second booster. But our vaccination centres will offer it to them if they want to take it, starting from 150 days or about five months after the last booster.

42.      So in short, we recommend second booster to those aged 80 and above, and we offer the second booster to those aged 60 to 79. For these two groups, the second booster will continue to be free of charge, and available at all our vaccination centres.

43.      Another key question is then which vaccines to use when we want to proactively roll out our second booster for the general population.

44.      That will depend on the nature of the new variant of concern. If it is a derivative of the Omicron variant, with similar characteristics, there is a high chance that the current vaccines will continue to confer good protection, and will serve us well as the second booster.

45.      However, if the new variant of concern is more dangerous than the Omicron variant, then it may require a different response strategy as far as second booster is concerned.

46.      To judge whether a variant is more dangerous, we look at two characteristics.  One, does it lead to more severe illnesses and deaths amongst individuals who are infected? If it does, we then may have to respond differently by bringing back contact tracing, isolation, quarantine and testing. However, such a variant may circulate in the community but if it does not dominate over Omicron, it will die off over time. It will be short-lived. 

47.      This brings us to the next characteristic, which is will a new variant of concern be more infectious than Omicron and dominate over it?

48.      It is entirely possible that we have a  variant of concern in future that is more deadly than Omicron, and also more transmissible. And if it is both, we would then face a worst case scenario. We may need to hunker down for six months or more, while scientists develop a new variant specific vaccine. This is one of the worst case scenarios that we need to be psychologically prepared for. 

49.      MOH will continue to work with our international counterparts to closely monitor the emergence of new variants of concern.

50.      I will now pass the floor to DMS Associate Professor Kenneth Mak.   

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