A man rides a bicycle along a street at the Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on April 20, 2021. The city-state may need to roll back its reopening plans amid a new viral outbreak. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

SINGAPORE – A small but growing number of Covid-19 cases linked to India’s highly contagious virus variant has rattled Singapore, forcing the government to tighten social distancing measures and step up border curbs that could delay the opening of a travel bubble with Hong Kong and postpone planned major in-person events.

Initially set to launch on May 26 after a previous delay due to rising cases in Hong Kong, Singapore has said it will “review” the travel bubble scheme. It’s not clear if new, longer quarantine requirements will scupper other planned conferences and events, including the Shangri La Dialogue, that aim to showcase the city-state as a safe and resilient business hub.   

At least 40 new cases have been linked to a cluster at one of Singapore’s biggest hospitals after a fully vaccinated 46-year-old nurse working there tested positive for Covid-19 on April 28. The case marked Singapore’s first-ever cluster at a hospital and is now the largest of nine active clusters.

At least 10 of the recent cases have been linked to India’s B1617 variant, underscoring the mounting risks posed by viral mutations that could prove to be more transmissible and more vaccine-resistant than earlier strains of the coronavirus. Ten unlinked community cases have also been reported over the last week.

“The new variant strains have higher attack rates, they are more infectious, they are causing larger clusters than before,” said Lawrence Wong, education minister and co-chair of Singapore’s multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, at a press briefing on May 4 that announced more stringent quarantine measures and limits on social gatherings.

Inbound travelers arriving in Singapore from so-called higher-risk countries and regions – all places except Australia, Brunei, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, New Zealand, and Taiwan – will have to serve 21 days of quarantine at dedicated facilities from May 8, up from the current requirement of 14 days.

This comes after Singapore barred visitors from India, which is battling a deadly second wave that has seen the world’s biggest surge in daily coronavirus infections. The entry ban was expanded further to those with a recent travel history to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, due to rises in Covid-19 cases in South Asia.

Groups of five will be permitted to gather socially, down from eight, while places with higher risks of transmission, such as gyms and fitness studios, will shut from May 8 to 30. Employers must also ensure that no more than 50% of their staff are present in the workplace at any given time, down from 75% currently.

People sit on chairs marked out to keep social distancing amid the Covid-19 pandemic on March 19, 2021 in Singapore. Photo: Suhaimi Abdullah/NurPhoto via AFP

“If new unlinked cases continue to emerge in the coming days and weeks, then certainly, we will not hesitate to take even more stringent measures, even the possibility of having to enter another circuit breaker down the road,” said Wong, referring to the two-month lockdown in force last April and May.

In all, the number of new community cases has risen to 64 in the past week, up from 11 cases in the previous week. As of Tuesday (May 4), Singapore has reported a total of 61,252 Covid-19 cases – more than 98% have recovered – with just 31 fatalities since the island republic reported its first case in late January 2020.

Authorities have moved swiftly to ringfence new cases, locking down four wards at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the site of the latest community outbreak, and quarantining close contacts of those infected, including patients, visitors and staff members. All of the hospital’s 12,000 staff members will also be tested in the coming days.

Ling Li Min, an infectious diseases physician at the local Gleneagles Hospital, said the extent of community spread would become clearer within the next few days as testing ramps up, and it was “sobering” that a cluster was discovered at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where Singapore’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak began in 2003.

“This is a place where departments are very strict with safe management measures and staff do not allow themselves to let their guard down,” said Ling. “This is an example which confirms that the virus lurks around, there are asymptomatic infections all the time, [and] no one is safe unless they remain vigilant at all times.”

In April, Singapore for the first time topped Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, which uses various indicators to measure countries’ best and worst management of the pandemic. The city-state outpaced New Zealand for its more efficient vaccination program, which has seen 15% of the population fully vaccinated since the start of the year.

Experts have anticipated the possibility of post-vaccine infections, as well as reinfections among those who had been previously recovered from the disease. Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MoH) has said vaccines like the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots used locally are effective in preventing symptomatic disease, but that infections are still possible.

Several migrant workers who previously recovered from the virus, including individuals who received both vaccine doses, tested positive in late April, leading to a new round of quarantine for around 1,200 migrant workers residing in dormitories where tens of thousands of cases sprang up last year, triggering lengthy lockdowns of their cramped housing complexes.

Men look out from the balcony of a dormitory used by foreign workers at Cochrane Lodge 2 in Singapore on April 15, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Those dormitory clusters were eventually brought under control, with barely any new infections occurring in recent months. Singapore’s task ahead, say experts, is to contain the latest community clusters and break their transmission chains without resorting to blunt and economically debilitating tools like a nationwide lockdown.

In a May Day address urging Singaporeans to keep their guard up, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said there was a good chance that Singapore would be able to achieve 6% growth or better this year, provided that the island’s Covid-19 situation remains stable and there are “no setbacks” to the global economy.

“Six percent growth will only bring us back to where we were before Covid-19 struck. And now we see new strains of the virus emerging, and we are watching our situation and it can easily and quickly turn bad again,” Lee said. “If we had to do another lockdown like last year’s, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery.”

It is increasingly unclear whether such a robust economic rebound can be achieved, not only due to uncertainty around community spread and tighter restrictions in Singapore but also given the grim global situation for countries like India, the world’s fifth-largest economy and a major contributor to global economic growth, as it grapples with a vast public health crisis.   

Mutant variants and resurgent outbreaks in other major developing economies like Brazil and South Africa could mean that international travel restrictions will remain largely in place, say experts, with a dampening effect on growth in the aviation, tourism and event sectors that Singapore, as a regional travel hub, has attempted to regalvanize in novel ways.

Connect@Changi, a facility designed to allow for in-person meetings to be safely held behind airtight glass panels, was launched in February in the hope of catalyzing Singapore’s economic recovery by enabling the resumption of business travel and face-to-face interactions between local businesses and international visitors.

Developed by a Singapore consortium led by state investor Temasek Holdings, the pilot scheme allows business travelers to fly in and conduct meetings without having to serve quarantine on arrival. The catch is that foreign visitors cannot leave the purpose-built facility, a five-minute drive from Changi Airport, during their stay.

Connect@Changi’s meeting rooms are outfitted with airtight glass panels and separate ventilation systems to reduce transmission risks between Singapore residents and international visitors, April 28, 2021. Photo: Nile Bowie

The site mainly caters to companies that want to hold important negotiations, sign contracts or conduct job interviews. Since its launch, Connect@Changi has received over 100 confirmed bookings and facilitated over 150 in-person meetings. It announced an expansion on May 1 with over 660 guest rooms and 160 meeting rooms now available.

Connect@Changi aims to further boost its capacity to host 1,300 business travelers by the end of 2021, well beyond current demand for bookings. Those expansions seem to indicate that authorities in Singapore don’t see a near-term return to business-as-usual. At a daily lodging rate of S$384 (US$287), the facility is a costly option for business travelers.

“Singapore’s Connect@Changi provides a useful emergency option for people who really do need to meet urgently in person, but in truth the pandemic proves that most business people can manage fine enough with virtual meetings if they have to,” said James Crabtree, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia.

Crabtree is overseeing the resumption of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which will take place in-person from June 4 to 5 after being canceled last year due to the pandemic, and has said the event will operate under “strict rules and protocols [that] will provide for both a safe event and strong attendance from defense establishments around the world.”

Since its launch 2002, the dialogue has attracted top-level military officials, diplomats, and global arms manufacturers. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been confirmed to attend the event, organizers said, which would make him the most senior American official to visit Southeast Asia since President Joe Biden took office in January.

Singapore will also play host to another landmark event, the World Economic Forum (WEF), which will reportedly involve 1,000 delegates and be held at Marina Bay Sands complex from August 17 to 20. The event will mark the first time the WEF is held in Asia and only the second time it will be held outside the Alpine town of Davos, Switzerland since 1971.

WEF organizers have said that Singapore is “best placed” to host the event given its success in containing the pandemic. While not large enough to be called a new wave of community infections, rising local cases are a high-stakes test for the city-state as it prepares to safely host international events, smaller trade shows and other gatherings in the months ahead.

Singapore’s vaccination progress and vaunted contact tracing, testing and quarantine protocols put it in better stead than most to cope with and contain new infections, say experts. After a year of containing the pandemic with overall success, “we are more experienced and better equipped this time around,” said infectious diseases physician Ling.