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Singapore shows Asia way out of pandemic

Singapore's Chinatown earlier this year - the city has largely kept Covid-19 under control.

As Asia Pacific continues with its policy of lockdowns, border closures and punitive quarantines, Singapore this week shined a light on an exit route out of the pandemic.

Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said that moving forward the city intends to treat Covid as any other endemic disease, such as flu or chickenpox.

Admitting that the city - which has been largely successful in containing the virus - has never reached zero local transmissions, Loong said that there will be no more zero goals, quarantine for incoming travellers will end and close contacts of positive infections will no longer have to isolate.

“The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally within our midst,” Singapore government ministers told The Straits Times this week.

Singapore has a population of 5.7 million people and, like all other Asian nations, has sought to control the spread of Covid-19 with a succession of lockdown measures, circuit breakers and strict border controls. Despite this, it has continually clocked up around 20 to 30 cases a day, although the death toll has remained extremely low at just 35 fatalities in total.

“We can’t eradicate it (Covid-19), but we can turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza or chickenpox, and get on with our lives,” said Singapore’s Covid-19 multi-ministry task force.

The city state admits that vaccination is key and aims to inoculate at least two-thirds of the population with at least one dose by early August.

Testing will also be key, although the ministers believe quick and easy self-administered tests should replace intrusive throat swabs.

This policy mirrors countries such as the UK which has now vaccinated around 80% of its 68 million residents with at least one jab. Lockdown restrictions are slowly falling away, with a full return to normal anticipated in mid-July. The Delta variant continues to push UK cases up, but most infections are occurring in the as yet largely unvaccinated under 25 age group. Subsequently, hospitalisations remain relatively stable and deaths low. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, Covid is currently the 24th cause of death in the UK, after flu, dementia, cancer and heart disease.

The United States, which has also enjoyed a successful vaccination roll-out, reported this week that nearly all Covid-19 deaths in the US are now in people who are not vaccinated. According to analysis of government data by Associated Press, fully vaccinated patients account for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 Covid hospitalisations, or around 0.1%.

Singapore, like the UK, is planning on rolling out booster shots in due course and, significantly, the country also hopes to eventually stop reporting daily case numbers.

“Instead of monitoring Covid-19 infection numbers every day, we will focus on the outcomes: how many fall very sick, how many in the intensive care unit, how many need to be intubated for oxygen, and so on. This is like how we now monitor influenza,” the ministers told The Straits Times.

However, restrictions will remain in place for the current time.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong continues on its quest for zero local transmission. The UK was moved back to a high-risk grouping this week, leading to chaos for overseas students hoping to return home to the Asian city for the summer break. Quarantine hotels are mostly fully booked throughout July and August making it almost impossible for travellers to alter 14 day bookings to 21 days in line with the quarantine requirements for high-risk countries. The government is also no longer accepting the LAMP as a departure test, instead requiring all travellers get a full PCR-based nucleic acid test using a laboratory that is ISO15180 accredited.

From July, vaccinated travellers from low risk countries to Hong Kong will be able to reduce their quarantine to seven days if they take a test to prove they have sufficient Covid-19 antibodies.

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