SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced an easing of COVID-19 restrictions on Thursday (24 March), with the wearing of face masks being optional outdoors and group sizes going up from five to 10 from next Tuesday.
He said in a 15-minute televised speech – his ninth on the COVID-19 situation in Singapore – that the city-state has reached a "major milestone" in its COVID-19 journey, with the overwhelming majority of its population fully vaccinated and nearly everyone who is eligible receiving a booster shot.
From next Tuesday, the wearing of masks will now be optional outdoors as the risk of transmission is significantly lower, but they will still be mandatory indoors, Lee said.
But safe distancing requirements will still be maintained – one metre between groups where masks are off – to minimise transmission in mask-off settings.
Other easing of measures to roll out at the same time, besides increasing the group size from five to 10, include allowing up to 75 per cent of employees who can work from home to return to their workplaces, as well as the lifting of some restrictions on F&B establishments.
Singapore will also increase the capacity limit for larger events and – those with more than 1,000 people – to 75 per cent, Lee added.
"The Omicron wave has crested and is now subsiding. With many of us already exposed to the virus and recovered, our population has stronger immunity," he noted.
He added that Singapore's healthcare system remains resilient and held up even while under considerable stress at the peak of the Omicron wave.
One of the key considerations in judging how far and fast to ease COVID-19 restrictions is to not stress Singapore's healthcare workers and system to breaking point, said Lee.
"We must not place an impossible burden on the healthcare workers, and endanger many COVID and non-COVID patients who urgently need treatment," he added.
At the same time, Singapore must weigh the cost of such measures on businesses and the economy as well as their impact on children needing to learn and communities striving to connect, Lee stressed.
Taking all things into consideration, we believe that we are now ready to take a decisive step forward towards living with COVID-19.Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
The substantial easing of restrictions on cross-border travel will go in tandem with the easing of COVID-19 measures within the community, Lee said.
The Omicron situation in Singapore is well under control and arrivals from abroad constitute only a very small proportion of cases here, he said. This will mean Singapore can safely open up its borders, as well as drastically streamline testing and quarantine requirements for travellers.
"This simplified Vaccinated Travel Framework will let Singaporeans travel abroad more easily – almost like before COVID-19. It will also lift most restrictions for fully vaccinated visitors entering Singapore," Lee said, adding that the multi-ministry taskforce will provide the details.
While the domestic and cross-border changes represent a major step towards living with COVID-19 here, they stop short of a complete opening up because the virus "may yet bring further surprises", he added.
"Some countries have taken a 'Freedom Day' approach. They have declared the pandemic over, relaxed all restrictions at once. Now, they are anxiously watching their infection and mortality numbers rising rapidly again," Lee warned.
This is why Singapore is choosing to maintain its measured approach, which has served the city-state well over the past two years, he said.
Following the changes, authorities will "wait a while" to let the situation stabilise, with further easing of measures to be introduced "if all goes well", Lee explained, cautioning that Singaporeans should also be psychologically prepared for more twists and turns ahead.
"With more interactions, we too may see another wave of cases. And Omicron will not be the last variant we encounter – the virus will continue to evolve. Hopefully, new variants will become progressively milder and more flu-like," he noted.
But it is also possible that more aggressive and dangerous mutants will turn up, just like Delta did, Lee said, adding that if that happens, authorities may have to backtrack and tighten up Singapore's restrictions again.
"We cannot rule this out, even though we hope it will not be necessary. But whatever happens, we now have the knowledge and the means to keep everyone safe...So please take today’s announcements in the right spirit," he said.
Read and watch Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech in full here.
— Yahoo Singapore (@YahooSG) March 24, 2022
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