Singapore plans to stop counting daily Covid-19 cases and treat virus like flu

Singapore is making plans to stop counting its daily Covid-19 cases in a roadmap to resuming normal life by treating the virus like any other endemic disease.  

The city nation of 5.7 million has so far enforced some of the strictest and most successful pandemic-busting rules on the planet, recording just 36 deaths by curbing the virus through tough border restrictions, lockdowns and mass contact tracing and testing.

But in a nod to the public’s “battle weariness” after 18 months of maintaining a low Covid strategy, three leading members of Singapore’s Covid-19 taskforce have proposed a “roadmap” to return to quarantine-free travel, large gatherings and to end the tally of daily cases.

“Instead of monitoring Covid-19 infection numbers every day, we will focus on the outcomes: how many fall very sick, how many in the intensive care unit, how many need to be intubated for oxygen, and so on. This is like how we now monitor influenza,” wrote the trade, finance and health ministers in a joint op-ed in the Straits Times.

“We can’t eradicate it, but we can turn the pandemic into something much less threatening, like influenza, hand, foot and mouth disease, or chickenpox, and get on with our lives.”

Their broad plan to return to normality relies heavily on controlling infection rates through mass vaccination, shifts in testing methods, better treatments and social responsibility.

The plan relies on mass vaccination to 'tame' the virus

Credit: Chen Jimin/China News Service

The blueprint is a radical change of course from the so-called “Zero Covid” strategy adopted by Asia-Pacific countries like New Zealand and Taiwan, or rival business hubs like Hong Kong, and could offer a model for a successful transition to a more manageable long-term approach.

Singapore aims to give two-thirds of its population their first jab by early July, and have at least two-thirds of its citizens fully vaccinated by the start of August.

“Early evidence suggests that with vaccination, we can tame Covid-19,” write the ministers.

Full details of the plan have not yet been released but the op-ed suggests a lighter approach including easier breathalyser-style tests, more therapeutic treatments, a return to travel to countries that have controlled transmission, and good personal hygiene with citizens avoiding crowds if they are sick.

“The key point is that every pandemic through history from the Black Death to the H1N1 2009 Influenza A pandemic has eventually turned into an endemic disease regardless of what the society of the day has done,” said Prof Paul Tambyah, President of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

“Most viruses evolve to become less deadly but more transmissible,” he added.

The city nation may also try using easier testing methods, such as breathalyser-style tests

Credit: Wei Leng Tay/Bloomberg

Countries were starting to abandon the Zero Covid approach as the cost to society was too high, argued Prof Tambyah.

“This is not just in economic terms but also in terms of delayed elective surgeries, missed routine health checks. This is particularly so when the virus is more transmissible and less deadly as with the delta variant,” he said, adding that effective vaccination strategies helped to tip the balance.  

Dr Alex Cook from Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said he expected the government would opt for a “staged reopening” in line with their “safety-first approach” that allowed increases in numbers at worksites and general group sizes as it hit vaccine coverage targets.

High vaccination rates, particularly among older age groups, would help Singapore change its policy of strict isolation of cases and quarantine of their contacts to a more a light touch approach, he said.

“Booster jabs of the vaccine may be needed especially for the elderly. Hopefully what remains is a culture of hand washing and of wearing masks when sick, like the Japanese have routinely done for influenza for years.”

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