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Coronavirus

Singapore tightens border and safety rules as COVID creeps back

Pandemic 'winner' imposes 3-week quarantine on almost all travelers

Medical workers stand by to conduct rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 at a conference in Singapore in March.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore will impose stricter border controls and domestic safe distancing measures starting this weekend, the government announced on Tuesday, amid an uptick in community COVID-19 infections.

Effective late Friday, the city-state will insist that travelers arriving from "higher risk" countries and territories spend three weeks in hotel quarantine, up from the current two-week requirement. That covers the entire world except Australia, Brunei, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, New Zealand and Taiwan.

The government will also revert to somewhat tougher domestic safety measures from this Saturday to May 30. The limit on people at social gatherings will be reduced to five, from eight, while capacity for large-scale events will be cut to 250 from 750. The maximum ratio of employees allowed to work in offices will be lowered to 50% from 75%.

Singapore is widely regarded as a successful model for containing COVID-19, thanks to a combination of strict safety measures and border rules -- notwithstanding a surge in cases in migrant worker dormitories last year. It also has one of Asia's fastest vaccination campaigns and is on track for an economic recovery after mustering 0.2% growth in the first quarter of 2021.

But after months of nearly zero new coronavirus infections within the community, the city-state is grappling with a cluster that emerged in a general hospital.

A total of 60 community cases were reported in the past week through Monday. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health reported five community cases, all linked to the hospital cluster. While the government has already tested staff and patients in the facility, it suspects hidden cases may have already spread.

Moreover, a total of 29 cases involving coronavirus variants -- including strains first identified in hard-hit India and Brazil -- have been detected in the community, on top of 475 imported cases.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, co-chair of the government's coronavirus task force, told reporters that the country cannot not rule out the possibility of another "circuit breaker" -- what Singapore called its near-lockdown of workplaces and schools for two months last year -- if the situation worsens.

That could cloud the prospects for upcoming events and programs that are expected to help further energize the economy.

One is an "air travel bubble" plan with Hong Kong, scheduled to start on May 26. Coronavirus task force co-chair and Education Minister Lawrence Wong said Singapore would get in touch with the Hong Kong side. "We will monitor the situation and we will review and assess whether or not there will be any changes," Wong said.

As for events like the Shangri-la Dialogue defense conference scheduled for early June, Wong only said the government must monitor the fluid situation "very carefully."

"It may worsen, we may have to do more, in which case some of these events may have to reconsider the proposition of doing it physically," Wong said. Singapore also expects to host the World Economic Forum's special summit -- temporarily transplanted from Davos, Switzerland -- in August.

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