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Transcript of Minister Lawrence Wong's Opening Remarks at the Multi-Ministry Taskforce Press Conference  on 23 October 2021

23 Oct 2021
Good afternoon. We have explained earlier why the extension of the stabilisation measures are necessary. But we have also said that these measures are not static, and will be adjusted over time, based on our assessment of the situation. Now, some have asked, “What are we looking at before we can consider easing of the measures?”

Broadly speaking, we look at three areas. Number one, the rate of increase in infection numbers every day, because that rate of increase will impact on demand for healthcare services. Second, the proportion of infection cases that fall seriously ill, because these are the ones who need to be hospitalised and will likely need oxygen supplementation or ICU care. And thirdly, as a consequence of the second, we will look at occupancy rates in our hospitals, especially in our ICU facilities. In fact, we intend to update our daily reports soon with some of these indicators, so that the public will be able to see the same indicators that we are monitoring closely.

Now zooming in on these three broad areas, one key indicator that we are watching closely is the weekly infection growth rate. That is the ratio of cases in the past week over the week before. In some ways, it is a very crude measure of what epidemiologists call the reproduction rate or ‘R’, whereby we are using a crude measure of it by measuring the ratio of cases in the past week over the week before. This ratio used to be 1.5, which suggested that cases were doubling every two weeks. It has now come down to just above 1, and that means that cases are still increasing but at a slower rate, but because cases are still increasing, it is still resulting in pressures on our healthcare system.

We monitor this ratio closely and if the ratio comes below 1, and our hospital and ICU situation remain stable, we will make some calibrated easing in three areas. One, we are looking at allowing team sports to resume. For example, a group of five people can play football with another group of five people or any other contact sports. Second, we will look at resuming more activities in our schools and institutions of higher learning. And thirdly, we will allow family members from the same household to dine together in F&B establishments, up to a group of five persons.

These are calibrated moves where we assess the risk to be acceptable. For example, with activities in schools, IHLs, many of these activities are masked-up, so we think the risks are acceptable. Where sports are concerned, they do not have their masks on, and there are people interacting closely together, especially with contact sports, but we can mitigate the risk by requiring the participants to do an ART test - Antigen Rapid Test - before participating in the activity. 

For dining, it is high risk but because the people coming to dine together are from the same household, the risk can be mitigated. But then it is an issue of enforcement. How do we go around ensuring that across all F&B outlets this rule is complied with strictly and it is only people from the same household. So that is something that we are looking at, but potentially these are the next three batches of easing moves we are looking at, subject to the conditions I just highlighted. 

Some people ask, “Why not do more, why not just go further and relax further? For example, allowing group sizes to increase across the board to five or even eight persons.” As you have heard from Minister Ong just now, I think taking such a path of just relaxing measures across the board will cause cases to rise sharply. There is no doubt, this will cause a resurgence of cases. I think we have to ask ourselves if this were to happen, what will we do when our ICU facilities get fully occupied. 

Already, we are at two-thirds occupancy for ICU beds, two-thirds. What happens if there is a surge of cases, and we do not have enough ICU beds to take care of people who truly need ICU care. And we are not just referring to COVID patients, because there are still people, non-COVID patients, who do need ICU care and already we are postponing some of these elective cases, but we cannot hold them off indefinitely. 

So, this is one reason why, one critical reason why we are, we do not want to relax across the board, we want to protect our healthcare system and our healthcare workers. 

Of course, the next question that people ask is, “Well if you have to do things selectively and open selectively, why are you opening up in some areas but not in other areas?” Minister Ong has explained just now, we are trying very hard to take a middle ground approach, not to go into either extreme of staying put where we are nor opening up too liberally and risking a surge of cases that can overwhelm our healthcare system. Taking this middle ground approach means that we have to be selective, we have to open up in settings which we assess are more acceptable in terms of risk. How we do that? We try our best to assess these risks with experts, with our advisors. It will not be perfect, but by and large, where we assess the risks to be not as high, to be within acceptable limits, then we will want to move first, as we have been doing for travel. 

And as I highlighted just now, the next round of easing will include the areas, which I have explained, in sports, in schools, IHLs and in family dining, where we think the risks are also acceptable. So that is the journey that we are taking, and we hope people will understand the considerations that we are making, as we make these calibrated moves. We know that there is a lot of frustration about the ongoing restrictions, but we also hope everyone in Singapore understands why the MTF has to take the healthcare considerations very seriously as we go about managing the pace of reopening. At some point, as we have said before, the wave will peak. And day by day, week by week, we are getting better and stronger protection through natural immunity, and through the booster shots, and this would then allow us to continue with our path of easing without seeing another surge of cases, so we can have confidence that this path towards reopening and living with COVID will be followed through in the coming weeks and months. Thank you.