Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament
Miss Cheng Li Hui
MP for Tampines GRC
Question No. 379
To ask the Minister for Health regarding the possible Phase 3 opening by end-December 2020 (a) what factors are taken into account when deciding on the maximum number of people allowed for gatherings, weddings and other events; (b) what will be the safeguards and measures in place to ensure compliance when more activities resume on a larger scale; and (c) what plans are in place should there be a spike of COVID-19 cases in Phase 3 and whether that includes reversion to Phase 2.
1. The Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF) announced our road map to Phase Three on 20 Oct 2020. To recap, Phase Three is not a return to the pre-COVID status quo, but a new normal which will last until such time the rest of the world also has the virus under tight control or when effective treatments or vaccines are widely available. We must prepare ourselves for a Phase Three that could last for a prolonged period – potentially a year or more. In this context, we need to put in place the measures and equip ourselves with the tools that will enable us to stay safe, as we allow greater flexibility to live, work and even celebrate major life events.
2. In determining the capacity limits for events in Phase Three, we took into account various factors such as the frequency at which the activity takes place, the potential risk factors inherent to the nature of the event and whether additional safety measures can be effectively put in place to limit or mitigate these risks.
3. Our analysis of how COVID-19 transmission takes place indicates that the probability of transmission tends to be higher in social settings. In Singapore, we saw large clusters forming due to the SAFRA Jurong dinner, and the Mei Hwan Drive condominium family get-together which took place over Chinese New Year. It is natural to lower our guard when we are among family and friends.
4. When we have meals together, the risk is higher as masks must be removed whilst eating and drinking. Many of us go out for meals practically every day, and with different groups, the risk is multiplied many times. Hence, we have taken a cautious approach in expanding group sizes. We are considering an increase in the group size limit from the current 5 persons to 8 persons in Phase Three for dining and social gatherings. Taking banquet tables as an example, many used to sit around 10 people before COVID-19. So 8 persons is about the maximum that these tables can take while allowing some additional distancing compared to the past.
5. As the World Health Organization puts it, any size of gathering poses a risk of COVID-19 transmission. That is why many countries facing a surge in COVID infections have had to impose lockdowns and prohibit social gatherings. But disallowing social gatherings for prolonged periods of time is not tenable nor desirable. We need to strike a balance. So while we now allow social gatherings, we should still limit our circle of close contacts to reduce the risk of spread to a large number of people if an infected person happens to be in the group. Therefore, allowing gatherings of up to 8 in Phase Three strikes a careful balance between maintaining safe distancing and allowing large groups to come together.
6. In settings where safe management measures can be effectively imposed to mitigate risks, and where interactions between different groups can be managed, we can allow a higher capacity limit, especially for important events. Weddings, for example, are key milestones in life, where friends and family come together to celebrate this joyous occasion. These are high-risk settings, as friends and family would naturally have the tendency to want to socialise and mix across groups, and often unmasked as we allow food and drinks too. We have seen clusters arising from weddings in places as diverse as India, Jordan, New Zealand and the United States, and many other countries. However, there have been pleas to raise the cap on number of wedding participants beyond 100 in zones or timeslots of no more than 50 each. For such higher-risk events, we will need to put in place additional measures to ensure that they can be conducted safely. For example, guests are already not supposed to mingle beyond their group of 5 at their table, and they must use SafeEntry and TraceTogether. This allows more family and friends to participate, while still minimising the total number of interactions.
7. Going forward, one key enabler that could allow more activities to resume, and potentially at higher capacity limits, is COVID testing. We are piloting the use of pre-event testing to allow higher-risk activities including weddings to scale up safely, by reducing the probability of a COVID-19 case being present at the event, thereby reducing the risk of transmission. Given the need for a short turnaround time for such testing prior to events, we are using alternative test kits such as antigen rapid tests which can return fairly accurate results quickly, within half an hour or so. However, they are not as accurate as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests which remains the definitive test for the confirmation of COVID-19 cases. As such, while pre-event testing helps to reduce the probability that a COVID-positive case is present at the event, it cannot eliminate it totally, and safe management measures will still have to be observed at the event.
8. Another key enabler is a enhanced contact tracing capability. We are progressively rolling out TraceTogether-only SafeEntry to ensure that all those who are visiting places where they are likely to be in contact with many others for prolonged periods, or where human traffic is high, have the TraceTogether App or Token. This is to speed up contact tracing efforts should someone you had been in close contact with at the event become a COVID-19 patient, and to allow us to provide you with medical care early if you become infected.
9. The Government will continue to work with businesses and premise owners to ensure that they maintain the appropriate safe management measures, and regularly remind their employees and associates to comply with these measures. Our Safe Distancing Ambassadors and Enforcement Officers will be on the ground to advise the public on safe distancing measures, and take enforcement actions where necessary. We must set the right spirit across society, and make sure all of us remain committed to maintaining the discipline that will us safe, even if we progress to Phase Three. In fact, even more so when we progress to Phase Three.
10. Our objective in Phase Three is to reach a steady state of permitted economic and social activities until an effective vaccine or treatment is widely available. If we can put in place more enablers and risk-mitigating measures that allow for further reopening and scaling up of activities, we will. On the other hand, if and where conditions worsen, we will take targeted measures too. We must not let our guard down and become lax in adherence to safe management measures, as doing so could result in a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, putting all our sacrifices thus far to waste.
11. While we are in a much better position today than we were earlier in the year to manage possible spikes in the number of cases, we must not be complacent. We have ramped up our healthcare capacity, contact tracing and testing capabilities, and put in place extensive safe management measures in the community, workplaces and dormitories. We have set up our defences at our borders, so that even as we welcome business partners and friends from overseas back into Singapore, we will be able to do so safely. However, we must remain vigilant. Should there be a spike in cases, we need to respond swiftly and decisively. We cannot rule out the need to re-impose measures or introduce new measures in order to keep the virus under control.
12. To continue on our steady path to Phase Three, each of us must play our part to adhere to safe management measures, maintain good personal hygiene, and actively participate in the TraceTogether programme. Together, we will arrive at Phase Three, and emerge stronger eventually.