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Singapore Enhances Covid-19 Testing Protocols to Deal with Omicron

Passengers queue to check in for a flight on Singapore Airlines at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham

Passengers queue to check in for a flight on Singapore Airlines at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 26, 2021. REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that Singapore will freeze new VTL openings amid 'major uncertainty' brought by the Omicron variant.

Singapore will enhance its COVID-19 testing protocols for all travellers as part of tighter measures to deal with the Omicron variant, health ministry said on Tuesday. Among the measures, travellers arriving in Singapore on the vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) from December 2 must take additional antigen rapid tests (ART) to reduce the importation of the new Omicron coronavirus variant and allow prompt detection and isolation of cases who might have it.

These travellers must undergo supervised self-administered ARTs at a quick test centre on Days 3 and 7 of their arrival, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a statement on Tuesday. Currently, VTL travellers only need to take an on-arrival polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and self-isolate until they get a negative result.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Tuesday that Singapore will freeze new VTL openings amid ”major uncertainty” brought by the Omicron variant, although he acknowledged that cases with the variant could ”sporadically” slip into the country as authorities continue to learn about it. This includes whether the variant is more infectious or harmful than others, its incubation and infectious period, whether ART and other tests can detect it, and how well vaccines work against it, Ong said at a COVID-19 multi-ministerial task force press conference.

”For domestic healthcare protocols, we can use the Thermo Fisher PCR to preliminary identify Omicron infections and differentiate the follow-up actions,” the Channel News Asia quoted Ong as saying. ”But for border policies, there is no basis for us to do so. So, this is where we need to judge very carefully and be prepared to adjust our border measures along the way,” the minister said.

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When asked how Singapore might decide on suspending VTLs, COVID-19 multi-ministerial task force co-chair Lawrence Wong said authorities will look at data concerning the spread of the Omicron variant in these countries. ”If we think that there is a very strong likelihood or we assess that there is a risk of imported infections coming through that particular channel, then indeed we will consider suspending the VTL with that country,” said Wong, who is also the Finance Minister.

When it comes to border measures, Wong said Singapore can choose the drastic steps of leaving things unchanged, or shutting the borders and stopping travel altogether. ”At this juncture, we should not under or overreact or rush to any of these extremes. In fact, there are many options in the middle of the spectrum. We should judge the situation carefully and develop our responses based on data and signs, as we have been doing throughout this pandemic,” he said.

In further stepped-up measures against the Omicron variant, travellers entering or transiting through Singapore from December 3, including travellers from Category I regions, must undergo a pre-departure test within two days of their departure for Singapore and produce a negative result. Those entering Singapore, including travellers from Category II, III and IV countries, must also undergo a PCR test on arrival.

Currently, travellers from the Category I regions of Hong Kong, Macao, mainland China and Taiwan only need to take a PCR test on arrival, while those from Category II, III and IV regions only need to take a PCR test near the end of their stay-home notice period. These enhanced measures will apply for four weeks in the first instance, and will be reviewed and extended if necessary, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said.

The ministry will also conduct a one-time surveillance PCR testing exercise for travellers who arrived between November 12 and November 27, and had travelled to the countries or regions affected by the Omicron variant in the 14 days before their arrival in Singapore. These affected countries or regions are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

”These travellers have been notified of their scheduled test time and venue. We seek the understanding and cooperation of affected travellers for the testing exercise,” MOH said. MOH advised Singapore residents to defer all travel to higher risk countries or regions, including those affected by the Omicron variant, until further notice.

Travellers who visit places with reported cases of the Omicron variant or countries that see a lot of visitors from these places should take extra precaution, MOH said. Singapore will also pause the relaxation of social measures.

Commenting on the moves during a press conference held by the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, Health Minister Ong said, This is a prudent thing to do for now when we are faced with a major uncertainty. Singapore has just emerged from a stabilisation phase and has been relaxing social measures, such as allowing more people to dine together in restaurants and hawker centres and also increasing group limits for gatherings.

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first published:November 30, 2021, 21:46 IST