Tightened border measures helped buy time to prepare for Omicron: Lawrence Wong

Imported cases have hit record highs in recent weeks as the more infectious Omicron variant rapidly spread worldwide.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Singapore could have seen a surge in Omicron cases last month, but the tightened testing protocols put in place helped buy time to prepare for the Covid-19 variant, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Wednesday (Jan 5).

Responding to a question on whether the Government plans to step up Covid-19 testing requirements or further tighten a quarantine-free travel scheme, he noted that it had already done so and that it was not possible to stop the Omicron variant from coming into the community.

"At this juncture, now that Omicron is in our community... our focus now is to move towards living with Omicron," he said.

Noting how the tightened border measures put in place last year had helped to delay a surge in Omicron cases, he said: "We used this very, very valuable time to strengthen our healthcare system and to update our healthcare protocols."

Mr Wong was speaking during a virtual press conference by the Covid-19 task force, which he co-chairs.

Imported cases have hit record highs in recent weeks as the more infectious Omicron variant rapidly spread worldwide. Many of these cases have entered Singapore through the quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme.

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Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, also a co-chairman of the Covid-19 task force, noted that the authorities have already tightened border measures earlier, with the introduction of a seven-day testing regime for travellers entering Singapore under the VTL.

He said that the Ministry of Health has also reduced the quota of VTL arrivals, with a 50 per cent cut in quota for arrivals from Jan 21. It also announced last month that sales of new VTL tickets for entry into Singapore between Dec 23 and Jan 20 will be stopped.

Mr Ong added: "The question is - do you want to tighten further, say stop the VTL scheme? You can stop it for a particular country with high cases... it does affect our reputation, but more importantly, does it help?"

Adopting this stance would mean that Singapore would have to continue to shut down VTLs with other countries, given how Omicron has spread around the world, said Mr Ong.

This would result in border closures again, and force Singapore to give up whatever it has achieved since the pandemic forced borders to be closed two years ago, he added.

Mr Ong said: "When we look at Omicron, if it is indeed a very transmissible virus with very harmful and bad outcomes, we will have no choice, we will have to hunker back down.

"But when we start to understand that Omicron causes less severe illnesses than the Delta variant... I think the correct conclusion is that we can live with Omicron, thank goodness."

Mr Ong, who was transport minister prior to a change in portfolio last May, reiterated a point previously made that vaccinations, especially with booster shots, work in protecting against Omicron.

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, another co-chairman of the Covid-19 task force, said that it is important from an economic standpoint for Singapore to remain connected to the world.

Keeping the country's borders open will also allow Singaporeans who are overseas to return, as well as family members in different countries to reunite, said Mr Gan.

It would be possible to shut out Omicron only if Singapore imposed a total lockdown and close the borders entirely, he added.

Mr Gan said: "But we then have to ask the question - what do we do when we close the borders? What are we waiting for? When are we waiting to open it up?

"I think we have to be very careful and take a calibrated approach in managing all our countermeasures against Covid-19, including for border measures."

This article was first published in The Straits Times.