SINGAPORE - The relaxation of social measures will be paused, and travellers entering Singapore will face stricter rules from 11.59pm on Thursday (Dec 2), as the country acts to buy time amid the spread of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant around the world.
The moves come as Singapore works to assess the implications of the new Covid-19 variant that has already spread to at least 16 countries, after the variant was identified in South Africa last week.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Tuesday that no cases of Omicron have been detected locally, adding that the pre-emptive measures will help to reduce the risk of importing the virus.
Commenting on the moves during a press conference held by the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said: "This is a prudent thing to do for now when we are faced with a major uncertainty."
Singapore has just emerged from a stabilisation phase and has been relaxing social measures, such as allowing more people to dine together in restaurants and hawker centres and also increasing group limits for gatherings.
While the current measures will not be dialed back for now, the multi-ministry task force handling Covid-19 said it will hold off on further relaxation.
MOH also said that anyone in Singapore confirmed or suspected to be infected with the Omicron variant will not be allowed to undergo home recovery, and will have to be taken to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases for isolation.
The ministry will conduct full contact tracing for these cases to identify their close contacts, place them on a 10-day quarantine at government quarantine facilities, and conduct PCR testing at the start and end of their quarantine.
"We are introducing a set of measures that serves as a strong yet reasonable response to the new variant to protect our local community," said MOH. "We will continue to monitor and evaluate data on the Omicron variant as it emerges and adjust our border and domestic measures accordingly."
MOH also announced the tightening of border measures that will take effect from 11.59pm on Thursday.
First, air travellers arriving on the quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme will have to undergo supervised, self-administered antigen rapid tests (ARTs) at a Quick Test Centre on day three and day seven of their arrival.
Currently, these travellers are allowed to enter without having to undergo quarantine under the scheme, and have to take a Covid-19 swab test only prior to their departure for Singapore, and after arrival here.
Second, all air travellers entering, transferring or transiting through Singapore must have tested negative in a pre-departure test within two days of leaving for Singapore.
Currently, travellers from Hong Kong, Macau, China and Taiwan are not required to take pre-departure tests, and need to take a Covid-19 swab test only upon arrival. These places are in Category I of MOH's risk classification framework, which means they have the lowest risk of Covid-19 infections.
Third, all travellers must take a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on arrival. This will affect non-VTL travellers entering Singapore who are not from Hong Kong, Macau, China and Taiwan. Currently, they do not have to take a test upon arrival, but have to be tested before the end of their stay-home notice period.
MOH said that it will also conduct a one-time PCR testing exercise for surveillance purposes, for travellers who arrived in Singapore between Nov 12 and 27, and had been to the countries or regions affected by Omicron in the 14 days before their arrival.
These travellers have been notified of their scheduled test time and venue, said MOH, asking for the understanding and co-operation of affected travellers for the testing exercise.
Meanwhile, after the upcoming VTLs with Thailand, Cambodia, Fiji, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Turkey start around the middle of December, no more VTLs will be launched.
MOH had also earlier announced that three other planned VTLs for Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been postponed indefinitely. This is done as a precautionary measure to reduce the risks of importing the Omicron variant to Singapore, said MOH.
News of the Omicron variant, which is assessed by the World Health Organisation to have a "very high" global risk, has in the past two days triggered Japan and Israel to announce plans to close their borders to foreigners.
The variant has many more mutations than the Delta variant and has sparked concerns among health authorities worldwide, though the impact of the mutations is still being investigated by scientists.
MOH said Singapore needs to buy time to learn more about the variant as some of the mutations found in the variant's genome, previously found in other variants, were known to enhance transmissibility and reduce vaccine efficacy.
"In terms of vaccine efficacy, early data suggests that current vaccines should remain effective against severe disease and death. However, more studies are needed to understand the actual impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines and treatments," MOH added.
MOH noted that there has been a rapid increase in the proportion of cases that are infected by the Omicron variant in South Africa. It also said more countries have reported cases over the last few days, suggesting that the variant has spread globally.
It added that Singapore's community would have some protection against this new variant.
At the press conference on Tuesday, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force, said: "Very little is known yet about this variant with regard to its transmissibility and severity, and how effective vaccines are against it.
"We are closely monitoring the situation, and scientists around the world are working on it."
These tightened restrictions will be in place for four weeks. They will be reviewed or extended if necessary, said MOH.
MOH also said that from Thursday, it will go back to rostering weekly routine PCR tests for airport and other front-line workers at the borders who may come into contact with travellers from places affected by the Omicron variant. This replaces the current routine ART tests that such workers have to go through.
MOH said a PCR-based test will help detect not just Covid-19, but the Omicron variant, in a timely manner.
Aircrew serving flights from countries with Omicron cases will be subjected to an on-arrival PCR test, and post-arrival PCR tests on day three and day seven following each flight.
All other airport and border front-line workers will continue with routine ARTs. Those who have recovered from a Covid-19 infection will also have to undergo regular Covid-19 testing as well.
MOH said that as an added precaution, those with a positive ART result will have to go for a confirmatory PCR test.
Correction note: An earlier version of this story said six upcoming VTLs will be postponed. This is inaccurate. There are no changes to plans for the six new VTLs, but there will be no additional VTLs announced for the moment.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.