What New Zealand can learn from Singapore's Covid success
OPINION: Last Sunday, Singapore’s health minister Ong Ye Kung took to social media to hail a significant milestone in the nation’s battle against Covid-19 – the city state had fully vaccinated more than 80 per cent of its 5.7 million population.
The extraordinary uptake of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines has enabled the Southeast Asian island to take “a step forward in making ourselves more resilient to Covid-19”, Ong said, marking the beginning of the end of the country’s Covid zero elimination strategy.
A technology-driven contact tracing system, based on the government’s TraceTogether app and Bluetooth devices (and the SafeEntry system for checking into workplaces and public spaces), has helped the state stay on top of Covid outbreaks, albeit raising some data privacy concerns. Only 55 deaths have been recorded so far.
Coupled with the world-leading vaccination rate, ministers have begun to lay the groundwork for a gradual reopening of the economy, as Singapore becomes the first country to pivot from Covid zero towards a post-pandemic version of normality.
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In a frank address to the nation last weekend, Singapore’s leader Lee Hsien Loong reaffirmed the shift, stating elimination was “no longer possible” and that the country must “change gears”.
According to local media, the reopening will be a phased process. Strict social distancing, restrictions on the unvaccinated and tight border controls will remain in place.
A “preparatory” stage will see entry requirements eased for vaccinated visa holders and their families. People arriving from low-risk countries will then be able to quarantine at home, with regular surveillance testing.
From this month, limits on public events will be relaxed and border controls will be loosened further. Wastewater testing will be expanded, and the government will explore “vaccinated travel lanes” with other countries, increasing the free flow of business travellers and tourists.
All these loosened measures will be accompanied by more aggressive testing, while a programme of booster jabs is being lined up for next year.
Though every nation’s Covid battle is different, the pathway outlined by Singapore should offer some lessons for other zero-Covid countries across APAC, namely Australia and New Zealand.
The city state will reopen from a much stronger position than Australia, in the midst of its uncontrollable outbreak, but New Zealand, with time on its side (hopefully), should be able to watch and learn.
Senior health experts in Singapore are keen to avoid the haphazard reopenings seen in the United States and the UK earlier this year. The latter country unleashed its restless citizens and scrapped most of its restrictions on “freedom day” in mid-July after 18 months of lockdowns.
Steven Cochrane, APAC chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, agrees that Singapore could offer a test case for Australasia. He says Singapore’s track record on vaccinations and test and trace underpins the bold shift in strategy.
“This is what gives Singapore the ability now to shift toward a more accommodative approach,” he says.
“Its ability to vaccinate, and its ability to test and trace infections, has kept its hospitalisation rate low, so that the public health risks seem to be manageable.”
He adds: “The difficult part will be how well Singapore can open its borders, allow travel to be relatively easy with minimum or no quarantine required, and still keep infection rates down.”
Singapore’s high threshold for reopening highlights New Zealand’s recent decision to lock down as the right one. Only those completely detached from the global reality have argued for the end of lockdowns with a weak layer of protection across the community.
A much larger portion of the population will need their vaccine, and soon. Roughly 23 per cent of New Zealanders were fully vaccinated as of late August, but experts such as Rod Jackson, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, have argued that the Government should target a 90 per cent rate.
Following a slow start, it will take patience, and a bit of luck with this outbreak to build up New Zealand’s defences. But eventually our leaders will have to ponder a similar path to Singapore. The Government will hope that when the time comes, it can manage the situation from a position of strength.
Singapore’s prime minister has conceded that keeping Delta at bay is impossible in the long term. Rhetoric from politicians here, including recent comments from Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, suggests we’re slowly coming to the same uncomfortable conclusion.
New Zealand’s four-step reopening plan, including new travel pathways “once enough people are vaccinated”, flags the next phase of its re-engagement next year. Until then, the nations further ahead than us on the journey from Covid zero will provide valuable lessons on managing the perilous transition.
For now, Singapore’s progress should raise some urgent questions.
How can New Zealand improve contact tracing to cope with the quick spread of Delta? What level of vaccine coverage will be needed? Is enough being done to boost ICU capacity ahead of the inevitable?
A difficult road lies ahead. But hopefully, when the time comes for New Zealand to “change gears”, we look a lot more like Singapore than other countries.