Singapore moves back towards lockdown as virus cases rise

Singapore moves back towards lockdown as virus cases rise
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SINGAPORE (May 14): Singapore is returning to the lockdown-like conditions it last imposed a year ago, banning dining-in and limiting gatherings to two people, as a rising number of untraceable virus infections pressures one of the most successful places in the world at Covid-19 containment.

For four weeks from May 16 to June 13, gathering sizes as well as household visitors will be cut to a maximum of two people from five people now, working from home will be the default, and food places can only do takeaways and deliveries, the health ministry said in a statement on Friday. The resurgence is also putting a highly anticipated travel bubble with Hong Kong in doubt.

The Singapore dollar extended its decline after the announcement of the new rules. The city's benchmark stock index bucked Asia's positive trend to sink as much as 3.2%, the most since June last year, before ending 2.2% lower. Shares linked to travel and consumption were among the biggest losers, with bellwether Singapore Airlines Ltd sliding as much as 7.3%.

"A pattern of local unlinked community cases has emerged and is persisting," the statement said. "We need to act decisively to contain these risks as any one leak could result in an uncontrolled resurgence of cases."

The country recorded 24 new virus cases locally on Friday, with more than half coming from a cluster originating from Changi Airport. The number of unlinked infections — the most concerning to officials as they signal undetected spread in the community — had risen to 15 in the past week from seven in the week before, the health ministry said on Thursday.

While the numbers are far smaller than ongoing outbreaks in countries like the US that are charging ahead with opening up, the flare-up is a major setback by Singapore standards, as the city state is one of handful of "Covid-19 havens" that had previously nearly eliminated the pathogen domestically. These places are now struggling to find a path to reopen as their vaccination drives lag major western economies.

The new rules are the most restrictive since Singapore went into a so-called circuit breaker partial lockdown in April last year, where schools and most workplaces were closed except for essential services and key economic sectors. Officials at a briefing on Friday emphasised the need to stay at home and only go out for absolutely necessary errands, and said they will review the measures after two weeks.

New rules amid upcoming big events

The return to near-lockdown in Singapore puts in doubt high-profile global initiatives meant to showcase its control of the virus. An long-gestating air travel bubble with Hong Kong, set to start on May 26, is now unlikely to go ahead on schedule. Singapore was also scheduled to host the Shangri-La Dialogue early next month, which organisers said they remain committed to, and the Davos-based World Economic Forum in August.

The new rules Singapore will have for the next month include:
• Fewer people allowed in shopping malls and showrooms.
• A maximum of 100 people allowed at business meetings and live performances with pre-event testing, and up to 50 people without such testing.
• Operating capacity at attractions cut to 25% from the current permissible capacity of 50%.
• Wedding receptions will not be allowed.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday authorities are testing more intensively and trying to ring-fence transmissions, and the stricter restrictions are needed to stop more cases from happening. "The new measures will be difficult for everybody," Lee said in his Facebook post.

Hong Kong travel bubble

Officials in both cities have signalled that the highly anticipated bubble, first scheduled to start from last November, will be delayed again in light of the outbreak in Singapore.

Transport minister Ong Ye Kung said at a Friday briefing that it is very likely that Singapore "may not meet the criteria" for the arrangements to go through; the government will make an announcement early next week on the bubble's fate after reviewing local cases.

According to the terms of the agreement, the travel bubble will be closed for two weeks if the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked local cases is more than five in either city. It is currently just above 2 in Singapore and near zero in Hong Kong.

There is a "high chance" the air travel bubble may not go ahead as scheduled, Hong Kong Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said on Friday, citing Singapore authorities. Yau said he will speak to Singapore's new transport minister S Iswaran early next week.

Job support

Given the new ban on dining-in, the Singapore government will increase job support subsidies for food and beverage firms as well as waive rental for one month for hawker stall and coffee shop tenants.

It is also stepping up virus testing from May 15, and will start using rapid test kits for people with symptoms at health centers.

The country had fully vaccinated over 22% of its population, or about 1.3 million people, as of May 13, the health ministry said in its statement. While that is the fastest in Asia, it lags the US at 36% and Israel at 56%.

On Thursday, the number of new local cases rose to 24, the highest since July last year. Changi Airport is now the single biggest cluster of Covid-19 cases, raising fears that travellers have spread the pathogen to airport staff and visitors despite strict post-arrival quarantine regulations.