Singapore goes on heightened alert to fight COVID-19 following spike in local cases

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Singapore, Jul 20 (PTI) Singapore has gone back to heightened alert measures to control people’s movement in its fight against the spread of COVID-19 as the heath authorities reported 195 new infections on Tuesday.

The Ministry of Health said 182 of Tuesday's cases were locally transmitted infection, 135 of which are linked to the Jurong Fishery Port cluster and 12 are linked to Karaoke TV cluster. The port receives fish from regional fishing network operators.

There were 13 imported cases on Tuesday.

Dining in will not be allowed from Thursday (July 22) to August 18 to stem the recent spike in community (local) cases.

Eateries can offer only takeaway and delivery options, said Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, announcing the reversal to heightened alert.

Maximum group sizes for social gatherings will be reduced from five to two and the number of distinct visitors per household per day will also be capped at two from Thursday, from the current five.

More clusters linked to Jurong Fishery Port, especially at wet markets and hawker food centres, have been uncovered, said the ministry.

'This is very concerning, as it can affect many people in our community all over the island,' it added.

The authorities said that while the return to stricter measures - last seen in May with the emergence of the Changi Airport cluster - feels like a huge setback. Singapore is continuing on its road map to living with endemic COVID-19.

The latest tightening is aimed at buying time to reach the target of having two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated by National Day, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung during Tuesday's virtual press conference.

When that is achieved, Singapore will have the confidence that it can stay safe while staying open despite a daily load of 100 to 200 new cases, he said.

'Hence, after thinking long and hard, we decided we have to revert to phase two (heightened alert). It is most unsettling for the affected industries and the establishments, but we are so close, weeks away, to a stage where we have two-thirds or more of our population fully vaccinated around National Day, and then (we will be) able to much more decisively transit to a COVID-resilient posture,' he said.

'Therefore, now is really not the time to risk it all. So, we need to bite this bullet, dial back on social activities, and use this time to push through the vaccination efforts,' The Straits Times quoted Ong as saying.

Minister Gan, who co-chairs the task force, said that given the rate at which new clusters are growing, tougher measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus to give time to raise vaccination coverage, especially among the elderly.

'We know that this news is extremely disappointing and frustrating to many, in particular for businesses in sectors such as F&B. These sectors have been very badly hit given the earlier restrictions, and have been working very hard to adapt to the changing regulations,' he said.

'We know that the last 18 months have been challenging, and we will provide additional support for the affected businesses as we make this shift,' he said.

On how the latest tightening fits into plans to live with an endemic COVID-19, Gan said the authorities' direction has not changed.

'However, when we outlined our plans to live with COVID-19, we also emphasised that we needed to significantly raise our vaccination, and meanwhile we still need to keep infection under control to protect the unvaccinated, especially the elderly. Over the next few weeks, we will make a much bigger push to get our elderly population vaccinated,' he said.

Work-from-home will continue to be the default at workplaces, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

Safety measures calibrated according to vaccination status will be reintroduced 'at an appropriate time' as Singapore's vaccination coverage continues to increase, the ministry added.

Strenuous indoor exercise classes, or strenuous individual and group indoor sports and exercise activities, will also cease during this period.

Personalised services that require masks to be removed, such as facials, saunas, and make-up services, will not be allowed. The same goes for singing, and the playing of instruments that require intentional expulsion of air.

Maximum event sizes will also be scaled down. For instance, up to 100 people will be allowed for marriage solemnisations, provided there is pre-event testing for all attendees. This is down from the current 250 people limit.

The task force had to rethink its posture with the significant shift in the public health situation, said Ong. Key considerations include protecting hospital capacity from being overwhelmed.

'I know today's announcement feels like a huge setback to many who have been observing the rules, and doing whatever it takes to keep themselves and the larger population safe. We deeply appreciate your efforts. Once we have slowed down the new clusters and hit higher vaccination rates, we would be able to continue with our reopening journey,' Gan said. PTI GS MRJ MRJ

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