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Singapore eyes September border easing once vaccine rate hits 80%

City-state considers swapping two-week isolation with 'rigorous testing regime'

People walk past a deserted food court in Singapore: The city-state recently tightened social distancing requirements following a flare-up of COVID-19 cases.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore is looking at relaxing its border rules this September, by which time around 80% of the country's 5.7 million people should have received two doses of coronavirus vaccines.

The city-state's Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a special COVID-19 task force, explained the government's thinking in a parliament session on Monday.

Wong said current requirements for travelers, such as 14 days in isolation, may be replaced with a "rigorous testing regime" or a shorter isolation period of seven days for vaccinated individuals.

Singapore is currently working to stop a modest uptick in coronavirus cases from turning into a bigger wave. But "as we bring the current outbreak under control, and continue to speed up vaccinations, we will be able to get our reopening plans back on track," Wong said, explaining that Singapore will work to establish travel corridors with countries or territories that have coped with COVID-19 well and where infections are minimal.

The city-state and Hong Kong have repeatedly put off plans to start just such a travel a corridor, due to the shifting COVID-19 situation. Both parties have agreed to revisit the arrangement in late August upon review of public health conditions on each side.

The minister's latest comments are another sign the government is committed to staying the course in treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease that can be managed and lived with.

Singapore is on guard against the highly contagious delta variant that has driven a COVID-19 resurgence around the world, and re-imposed a ban on dining in at eateries last week while capping social gatherings to pairs. Infections within the community have crossed 100 on a daily basis.

For now, authorities hope to stave off transmissions until a higher proportion of the population is fully inoculated against it, protecting more vulnerable segments of society such as still-unvaccinated seniors.

Wong said on Monday that Singapore will sync its reopening with vaccination coverage within the population, with different sets of rules likely to apply to those who have been inoculated.

"The key is to open up at the correct juncture," he emphasized. "Some countries have decided to open up fully even though their vaccination rates are less than ideal."

More than 50% of the population is now fully vaccinated. But Wong noted how infections have surged in the Netherlands and the U.K. as both European countries lifted restrictions on social interactions, with Holland at 45% and Britain at 55% in terms of having their populations inoculated.

The minister said that as Singapore treats COVID-19 as endemic, the focus will no longer be on daily case numbers of infections, but rather on the numbers of coronavirus patients in intensive care, and how stretched the health care system is.

"We must expect cases to rise, partly because there is still ongoing cryptic transmission in our community, which can easily break out into new clusters with increased activity levels," Wong said.

"Also, as we open our borders for people to travel ... we will see more imported cases and infected persons slipping through from time to time."

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