Ong Ye Kung: Singapore's COVID measures 'appropriate' amid China's reopening

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung (right) said Singapore's current COVID-19 measures are appropriate to prevent a surge of infections even as China opens up its borders. (PHOTOS: Getty Images/MCI)
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung (right) said Singapore's current COVID-19 measures are appropriate to prevent a surge of infections even as China opens up its borders. (PHOTOS: Getty Images/MCI)

SINGAPORE — Singapore's current COVID-19 measures are appropriate to prevent a surge of infections in the city-state, even as China is reopening its borders for travel amid a high number of cases in the country.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung cited two key reasons how Singapore's current measures work in keeping COVID infections low, during his ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday (9 January).

First is the low number of flights currently between Singapore and China. There are only 38 weekly flights from China to Singapore, compared to around 400 weekly flights before the COVID pandemic.

This brings in about 700 to 1,000 travellers a day, which is less than 10 per cent of the pre-COVID numbers. Mr Ong added that any subsequent increase in flights will be carefully calibrated.

"In the four weeks running up to 1 January, 200 travellers from China were detected to have COVID, so they accounted for less than 5 per cent of our total infections," he said during Parliament.

"Of the incoming travellers during this period, seven developed severe illnesses and had to be hospitalised. One of them was from China.

"These are not large numbers, so the impact on our healthcare system was very small."

No new variants amid China's infection wave

Secondly, with no new COVID variants have emerged so far amid the current infection wave in China, Singapore's strong vaccination rate has kept its residents from contracting the coronavirus, or falling severely ill. The population has also developed strong hybrid immunity as many have recovered from mild infections.

This has prevented medical facilities in Singapore from coming under pressure from a surge in infection cases, even though risks and uncertainties remain as new variants can emerge from anywhere in the world.

Mr Ong said that Singapore has also kept a few border control measures, even as most of its COVID restrictions have been eased or lifted in the past year.

For example, incoming travellers need to either be fully vaccinated based on World Health Organisation standards, or produce a negative pre-departure test. This is neither the tightest nor the most liberal of border measures among countries, but somewhere in between, said Mr Ong.

"Our current measures of controlling the number of infected travellers have led to low imported infections, and even fewer severe cases from China at a time when the virus is spreading widely in the country," he said.

China had lifted all border controls and pandemic curbs on Sunday, ending three years of a strict zero-COVID policy. This included scrapping quarantine requirements for international arrivals, and reopening sea and land crossings with Hong Kong.

Ready to adjust policies wherever necessary

Mr Ong said in Parliament that the number of COVID patients in intensive care units was in the single digit over the past 30 days, although there were a few deaths.

Based on this severity rate, the number of annual deaths caused by COVID infections is is similar to that caused by influenza infections. Hence, COVID can be treated as an endemic disease with Singapore's extensive vaccination coverage.

Nonetheless, Mr Ong said the global pandemic is not over, and the current worry is the emergence of a new, unknown and more dangerous variant of concern that could escape vaccine protection, be more infectious and lead to more severe cases.

"As we move into this new norm, we will never be complacent. Our responses need to be based on science evidence and data, and we are ready to adjust policies wherever necessary," he said.

"We will always do our best to maintain our way of life and not go back to the days of lockdowns, unless absolutely necessary.

"As the prime minister said in his New Year's Day message, if the situation continues to be stable after the year-end travel season and the infection wave in China, we can look forward to making final adjustments to our prevailing social restrictions, and establish our post-pandemic lives."

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