PM Lee called attention to the refrain that "Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely," estimating that it could take three-six months for the nation to emerge into its new normal.

On 9 October 2021, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation on the COVID-19 situation - what has changed, the strategy for this phase of the pandemic, and the nation's path forward to a new normal. We've summed up the key takeaways for you here. 

#1 A move away from "Zero COVID" to "Living with COVID-19" 

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and no vaccines or scientific knowledge available at the time, Singapore's original approach was do its utmost to prevent Singaporeans from being exposed to COVID-19, what is now known as a "Zero COVID" strategy.

Citing vaccines as a "game changer", PM Lee then talked about the success of the national programme , which has seen 85% vaccination rates, as a result of which the vast majority of local cases (more than 98%) now have mild or no symptoms. "In other words, with vaccination, COVID-19 is no longer a dangerous disease for most of us," PM Lee said.

Even so, he acknowledged the emergence of the highly infectious Delta variant: "Even with the whole population vaccinated, we still will not be able to stamp it out through lockdowns and SMMs. Almost every country has accepted this reality."

As such, "Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely," PM said, thus affirming the shift to a new strategy of “Living with COVID-19”.

Noting that this has not been an easy and smooth journey so far, he called attention to the easing of the Heightened Alert in August 2021, which saw case numbers going up more sharply than was anticipated, thus raising concerns that the healthcare system would rapidly be overwhelmed.

"That is why last month we tightened up our restrictions. It was to slow down the growth in cases, so that we can ease the burden on our healthcare workers and stabilise our healthcare system. We are using this time to further expand healthcare capacity and strengthen our case management," he explained.

#2 Updated health protocols to propel an update in mindsets

PM Lee urged all Singapore residents to "update our mindsets", explaining: "We should respect COVID-19, but we must not be paralysed by fear. Let us go about our daily activities as normally as possible, taking necessary precautions and complying with SMMs."

He added: "The threat of COVID-19 is now mainly to seniors: 60 and above if you are not vaccinated, or 80 and above even if you are vaccinated. So for 98% of us, if we catch COVID-19, we can recover by ourselves at home, just as we would if we had the flu."

As such, Singapore is shifting to rely heavily on the Home Recovery model as the norm for COVID-19 cases. Not only will patients be able to get well in a familiar home setting, without the stress of being admitted into a care facility, but it would also greatly ease the strain on hospitals, doctors, and nurses. 

On this, he acknowledged that: "Earlier, our service delivery fell short. But we have worked hard to fix this, and put things right. If at any point you need to be admitted to hospital or a COVID-19 treatment facility, we will get you there."

All of this signifies not only a change in health management protocols, but a change in mindset. "Each one of us needs to take personal and social responsibility. Test ourselves as necessary. Self-isolate if we test positive. Consult a doctor if we have symptoms. Knowing what to do, we will no longer find COVID-19 such a scary disease."

He added, in another part of the speech: "Please don’t rush to the A&E with mild symptoms. Let us reserve hospital capacity for those who need it most – serious COVID-19 cases as well as others with serious illnesses."

#3 Demographics of concern: Unvaccinated elderlies, and children under 12 

Of the 142 COVID-19 related deaths that Singapore has seen so far, nearly all were elderly, and with pre-existing medical conditions, and a disproportionate number were unvaccinated seniors. "Our doctors and nurses do their best for every patient. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, not every seriously ill patient will make it through."

As such, PM Lee called on the elderly generation to do everything they can to protect themselves. "For the unvaccinated elderly, we will continue trying hard to persuade and vaccinate you. If you are above 60 and not yet vaccinated, you are at very high risk – please get your jabs now! For the elderly who are already vaccinated, please get booster shots to strengthen your immunity. Vaccination has already lowered your risk substantially, but your risk is still much higher than someone younger."

Giving a green light for them to go out to exercise and get fresh air, he urged them to cut back on makan, kopi, and beer sessions with their kakis. "This will lower your exposure to the virus. We want you to stay well!" 

On the other demographic, PM Lee noted that vaccines have not yet been approved for children under 12; although the data shows that children with COVID-19 seldom get seriously ill. To tackle vaccines for this demographic, he estimated a timeline of early-2022. 

"We are closely tracking the progress of vaccine trials on children in the US. We will start vaccinating children as soon as vaccines are approved for them, and our experts are satisfied that they are safe. This will likely be early next year."

#4 What can we expect over the next few months?

"The next few months will be trying. I expect daily cases to continue rising for some weeks. Our healthcare system will still be under pressure. We can slow, but we cannot stop the Delta variant," said PM Lee. 

"At some point, the surge will level off, and cases will start to decline. We don’t know exactly when, but from the experience of other countries, hopefully within a month or so. As pressure eases off on the healthcare system, we can relax our restrictions. But we will have to do so cautiously, to avoid starting a new wave again."

In the same breath, he credited healthcare workers for their hard work and extreme efforts to keep the nation's residents safe. "I know the enormous stress you are under, and the heavy load that you bear. You have been fighting so hard, for so long. Now we are going through perhaps the most difficult phase of our journey.

"But it will not last indefinitely. After this surge peaks, things should get better. We are doing all we can to protect you and the healthcare system as we go through this wave."

#5 How will we know when we have arrived at the new normal?

The new normal in Singapore will become a reality "when we can ease off restrictions, have just light SMMs in place, and cases remain stable – perhaps hundreds a day, but not growing. When our hospitals can go back to business as usual. When we can resume doing the things we used to do, and see crowds again without getting worried or feeling strange."

As such, PM Lee shared it could take Singapore at least three months, and perhaps as long as six months to get to this new normal.

"COVID-19 has surprised us many times before, and may yet surprise us again. But get there, we will. In a careful and safe manner, with no one left behind to fend for themselves and with as few casualties as possible along the way," he concluded.

Photo / PMO Singapore

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