A man wearing a protective facemask walks past the Rain Vortex display at Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. Photo: AFP via Getty Images / Roslan Rahman

SINGAPORE – With a high majority of its population fully vaccinated and nearly all eligible given a booster, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Thursday (March 24) a major easing of strict virus control measures in a “decisive step forward towards living with Covid-19.”

Gatherings of up to 10 people, up from a limit of five currently, will be permitted and the wearing of masks outdoors will be optional from March 29 in the most significant relaxation of rules in place for nearly two years. The city-state will also allow vaccinated travelers to enter the city-state without quarantine from April under a new travel framework.

In a televised speech, Lee said the country’s healthcare system remained resilient through a now-subsiding wave of transmission driven by the Omicron variant. While stopping short of a complete opening up, the premier said Singapore had to weigh the continued costs of stringent safety measures on businesses, the economy and society.

For many in the island nation, the announcement couldn’t have come soon enough. Although public compliance with protracted virus curbs has never ebbed, months of back-and-forth adjustments to restrictions have brought a palpable sense of fatigue as well as confusion over what “living with Covid-19” actually means.  

Singapore was one of the first nations to declare it would adopt an endemic strategy toward the contagion, but the fact of ongoing curbs have been jarring for many. Mild and asymptomatic cases have surged in recent months, slowing easing plans in what some regard as an overly cautious approach by the country’s multi-ministry Covid-19 task force.

On the other end of the debate, advocates of Singapore’s measured approach say the city-state’s pandemic response has been scientific and medically sound as well as necessary to avoid overburdening the healthcare system. With one of the lowest Covid-19 fatality counts worldwide, few would deny that the ends have justified the means.

“It’s always assurance that health authorities or governments need, and some countries have needed more assurance that the situation is going the right direction before rolling back restrictions,” said Dale Fisher, a senior infectious diseases consultant at Singapore’s National University Hospital (NUH).

“Some will feel the price of the restrictions is too high for the population, so they’ll want to ease earlier. Others will be a little bit nervous about doing so. It’s a balancing. Governments have had to weigh up the pros and cons and the risks of interventions, the sentiment in the community and the science behind it all,” he said.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced an easing of Covid-19 restrictions. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Lee’s address came less than a week after Singapore crossed the threshold of 1 million cases among the city-state’s 5.7 million population since the start of the pandemic. Despite that, there have been only 1,220 coronavirus-related deaths. Ninety-five percent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated, while 71% have received boosters.

Average new daily infections have declined for three weeks, down from a record daily caseload of over 26,000 on February 22. More than 99% of cases in Singapore in recent weeks have been considered mild infections, with numbers of those hospitalized falling gradually.

Among other announced easing measures were changes to allow up to 75% of employees who can work from home to return to their workplace, up from the current limit of 50%. Rules restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol after 10.30 pm in restaurants and bars will also be lifted, with live music performances and busking allowed to resume.

Under a new simplified travel framework, existing vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) allowing for quarantine-free entry to and from 32 countries and regions have been scrapped. All fully vaccinated travelers and children aged 12 and below will be able to enter Singapore after passing a pre-departure Covid-19 test without needing to pre-apply for entry approvals.

In a major easing of its border with Malaysia, the two neighbors have agreed to allow fully vaccinated travelers to move across overland checkpoints quarantine-free and without the need for Covid-19 tests. Border crossings between the two countries have been largely shut for two years to the detriment of working commuters and families.

The new travel rules will let Singaporeans travel abroad more easily, “almost like before Covid-19,” said Prime Minister Lee. “This will reconnect Singapore with the world. It will give a much-needed boost to businesses, particularly the tourism sector, and it will help Singapore reclaim its position as a business and aviation hub,” added the premier.

Senior officials have said Singapore is looking to restore passenger volume at Changi International Airport to at least 50% of pre-pandemic levels by later this year, compared to 18.2% currently. The airport handled 3.05 million passengers in 2021, or about 15% of pre-pandemic levels, up from 3% the year before.

Lee expressed thanks to Singapore’s healthcare workers and called on citizens to resume more normal lives but warned not to “throw all caution to the wind.” The premier said the country should be “psychologically prepared for more twists and turns ahead,” raising the specter of a new more aggressive and dangerous variant emerging in the future.

Disease expert Fisher said he is skeptical that a new variant could pose a meaningful public health threat. “For a new variant to emerge, it would have to be more transmissible than Omicron, or significantly escapes the vaccine, which we haven’t seen yet. So many people have been infected, and the immunity that people have is quite good,” he told Asia Times.

A pigeon is seen near tape to prevent people from gathering as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 at Merlion Park in Singapore on May 27, 2020. Photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Fisher added that he “fully agreed” with the government’s easing measures but advised against any further loosening for the time being. Authorities will now assess the situation before easing further, according to Lee, who did not rule out backtracking and retightening rules if the city-state experiences another new wave of cases.

Nicholas Yong, an assistant news editor with Yahoo News Singapore who has reported on the pandemic from its onset, wrote in a recent commentary that Singapore’s leaders have often made “reactive decisions” in the fight against Covid-19, resulting in costly policy U-turns and seemingly arbitrary curbs that have worn down the island’s citizenry.

Despite stated aims of “living with the virus” that have fostered certain expectations that “curbs would be significantly eased in tandem,” Yong wrote that the multi-ministry task force has taken an “ultra-cautious approach […] akin to a child dipping his big toe into the deep end of the pool, but going no further.”

In an interview with Asia Times, Yong said the recently announced easing had “to a large degree addressed many of the pain points” felt by Singaporeans. “Covid fatigue over constantly shifting goalposts set in long ago, and barring a new variant or massive outbreak, the government must now stay the course on the endemic phase,” he said.

Yong said that while Singapore had generally done well in tackling Covid-19, especially in comparison to some of its neighbors, some of the rules still in place “feel contradictory”, pointing to continued curbs on the movement of more than 300,000 migrant workers living in dormitories scattered across the city-state.

Migrant worker dormitories bore the brunt of Covid-19 infections in the first year of the pandemic, with laborers reportedly accounting for 19 out of every 20 cases in 2020. More than 98% of migrants living in worker housing have since been fully vaccinated, with authorities attesting to a “very strong” take-up rate for booster shots.

Migrant workers have had their movements restricted in the Covid era. Image: Facebook

Still, laborers have spent most of the last two years confined to their cramped dormitory compounds, with most only leaving to perform work. As part of Singapore’s easing measures, rules requiring migrants to apply for “exit passes” in order to leave their dormitories and visit selected locations such as recreation centers have been scrapped.

But quotas limiting the maximum number of fully vaccinated workers who are allowed out into the wider community each weekday remain in place. The number of vaccinated migrant workers allowed to make community visits has now been raised to 15,000 on weekdays and 30,000 on weekends and public holidays, up from 3,000 and 6,000 respectively.

Labor advocates and observers have continued to voice concerns over workers’ ongoing separation from society while the city-state pivots more earnestly toward living with the virus. “Why are there still heavy restrictions on workers’ movements when the rest of us can move about more or less freely?” asked Yong.