28 Jun 2021
Singapore’s COVID plan offers pathway out of lockdowns
With more than five million people in Sydney’s central and eastern suburbs locked down, other states implementing new restrictions, and Melburnians battle-weary after their fourth lockdown, people are asking when their lives will get back to normal.
Many understand that COVID-19 will likely never go away but simply mutate and live on in a different form, much as the flu does from year to year. Most people recover from the flu without needing to be hospitalised. Some sadly die. Our society accepts this risk and people carry on with their lives during the flu season.
What we need now is a national understanding of the COVID-19 risks and a national plan that outlines the risks, educates the public and unites communities across the country. It should resist politics and scope creep. Our endeavours at the start of the pandemic were focused on a low death rate. This has now transformed to an elimination strategy rather than simple containment and mitigation of risk: suppression at a low level should be the new normal.
Whatever the final target, it should prepare us to deal with COVID-19 so we’re able to work, travel and shop without quarantines and lockdowns, even with the virus in our midst.
We could do worse than follow the example of the city state of Singapore, with a population of 5.7 million and about 20-30 cases every day, which has just set out such a plan. With enough people vaccinated, COVID-19 will be managed like other endemic diseases such as the flu.
Last week three ministers on Singapore’s taskforce on COVID-19 outlined their government’s transition to a new normal. The trio said priority in the next few months will be to prepare Singapore for life with COVID-19 as a recurring, controllable disease.
A road map is being drawn up to shift to this new normal. Singapore has ramped up its vaccination drive to reduce the rates of infection and transmission. By early next month, two-thirds of the population will have received at least one jab of the two-jab vaccines. The next milestone is to have at least two-thirds of Singapore’s population fully vaccinated with two doses around mid-August. A new analysis released by Public Health England shows that two doses of COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against hospitalisation caused by the Delta variant. There’s no move though to make the jab compulsory for Singapore’s public.
To sustain a high level of protection, booster shots may be needed in the future. That’s why Singapore is planning for a multi-year vaccination program. In time, people with COVID-19 who are well enough, will be allowed to recover at home.
Testing in Singapore won’t be used to quarantine people, but to screen those who want to enter office buildings, malls and schools. The ministers noted that there’s now even faster test kits in the pipeline, such as breathalysers, that take about one to two minutes to produce the results and don’t involve swabbing.
Daily updates on infection numbers in Singapore will shift to focus on outcomes, including work days lost, how many patients require hospitalisation or intensive care as well as death rates, in the same way the flu is monitored.
Slowly, safe management rules can be eased and large gatherings will be allowed. Businesses won’t need to be afraid of disruptions from lockdowns. People will be able to travel with vaccination certificates to countries that have also controlled the virus and turned it into an endemic norm. They may be exempted from quarantine with a negative test upon arrival.
The Singapore approach is appropriate, strong and versatile. The goal should be to ensure everyone is fully vaccinated, with boosters as required, with a vaccine variant that works against whatever virus variant is “cock of the walk” at the time. This is the familiar ground we see with seasonal variation in the flu vaccine. Then carry on as normal.
This means making sure there are competent teams stationed where the virus is rampant to document the emergence of these strains, which are evolutionary inevitable. If there aren’t such teams, we should offer to assist in contributing trained personnel. We must remain on the ball about keeping people from wherever the new nasty strain arises outside our borders.
But a key part of the exit road map must be to work out what vaccination level will permit us to open up. The Morrison government needs to set this out and use it as a lever to increase vaccination rates. The rate might, for example, be set at about 70 per cent fully vaccinated and the date about May 2022.
We’re now very close to the point where COVID-19 can be managed like other endemic diseases such as influenza with annual vaccinations. In Britain, they’re already planning autumn boosters. The battle against COVID-19 will continue to be fraught with uncertainty. Uncertainty and fear are good political tools. Governments should be wary of using these for short-term gain. Instead, focus on educating and uniting the population so that we can all look forward to a happy future.