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Thursday, December 8, 2022
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MTF WAS “READY” TO RE-IMPOSE WEARING MASKS INDOORS – ONG YE KUNG ON XBB WAVE

Minister of Health Ong Ye Kung said on 31 October that a return of restrictions such as wearing masks indoors cannot be ruled out in case new and worse variants emerge.

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Snippet of Ong Ye Kung’s statement

 I want to dial back a bit and talk about the pandemic. We are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I thought I will give a brief update today.

7.     The situation has stabilised, and life has gone back to normal. There is in fact much fatigue dealing with the pandemic and many people do not even want to think about COVID-19 anymore. Indeed, we are in a new phase of the pandemic, but not just in terms of people’s mentality and our safe management measures (SMMs), but in two other important aspects.

8.     The first aspect signifying a new phase of the pandemic is the evolution of the virus. In every society, there are now multiple sub-variants circulating. In Singapore, for example, we have BA.1, BA.2, BA.4, BA.5, BA.2.175, BA.2.10 and a few cases of BQ.1. In such a situation, where so many sub-variants are circulating, there is always the possibility that two of them meet and combine to become something new, what we call a recombinant subvariant such as XBB which is a combination of BA.2.175 and BA.2.10.

9.     But there is no reason for recombinants to be always more transmissible but less severe. It is a random process of nature, and a new recombinant variant could always take on characteristics of a parent variant that can lead to more severe illnesses. Fortunately, XBB was not like that.

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10.     The second aspect of being a new phase of the pandemic, is that life in Singapore is now practically back to pre-COVID normalcy, and we have once again re-established ourselves as an international hub and open economy. Singaporeans travel a lot, and we are hosting many conferences and events that create opportunities and jobs for our people. This also makes us vulnerable because whenever there is a new sub-variant which is very transmissible, we can be one of the first cities in the world to experience it, just as we were one of the first cities in the world to have a wave that is dominated by XBB.

11.     So if you put the two together, we can have a recombinant that can be more dangerous and we can also be one of the first cities in the world to experience it. Therefore while there is a lot of fatigue, we cannot be complacent. We, at least for the Ministry of Health (MOH), and all our hospitals and all of us in healthcare, cannot be complacent. Singaporeans do depend on us. So we need to be prepared in case there is a nasty infection wave, and we need to have our contingency plans in place.

12.     A key response is our vaccine strategy. That is why we rolled out the bivalent vaccines to those aged 50 and above. It is very important for older individuals to keep your vaccinations up to date, because it is more likely that you may develop severe illnesses when infected with COVID-19. Even in the last month, two out of 100 infected persons aged 70 or above and not fully vaccinated either died or ended up in the ICU. Once you get vaccinated, that probability drops by fivefold at least.

13.     So far, about 53,000 individuals have taken the bivalent vaccine, including myself. Many are waiting to be eligible or due, and I hope more will come forward. In a few weeks, we expect to roll out the bivalent vaccines to the younger age groups below 50.

14.     In the meantime, the wave driven by the XBB recombinant variant is clearly coming down and that has also relieved some of the pressure on our hospitals. I believe we have most likely ridden through this wave successfully. This is another first, because we dealt with the XBB wave with practically no SMM restrictions, and had removed indoor masking requirements and vaccination-differentiated SMMs (VDS). We practically had no rules and yet we went through the wave quite safely and successfully. It shows that our resilience has gone up by another notch.

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15.     For the XBB wave, the Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) was very ready to reimpose indoor masking and perhaps targeted VDS should the situation worsen. Fortunately, the infection numbers peaked and declined much earlier than we modelled, and we can stand down this contingency plan, at least for now.

16.     I thought that it is important that if we were seriously thinking about it because we were uncertain what would happen, it was better to inform the public that we might do it. Now that we think things are better and we do not need to do, we should be honest that we are no longer thinking about it – until the next wave comes. It is important to always be very open with the public, what we are thinking of, what we might have to do, but only when absolutely necessary.

17.     As we recover from each wave, and we have had three waves this year, we removed more rules until we reached where we are today. But when we have no more rules to remove, like now, we have reached a new steady state. From here, we should expect that if we encounter an infection wave driven by a nasty variant, we must be prepared to reinstate some SMMs, such as targeted VDS or indoor masking. We will prioritise measures which will not disrupt our normal lives and work.

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