Singapore relaxes Covid restrictions in bid to boost economy

Singapore has eased social restrictions as authorities focus on reigniting the economy to ensure the island retains its status as a global hub.

The government on Monday raised the limit on the number of people allowed to meet or be invited to a household from five to eight, and expanded maximum capacity at malls, attractions and places of worship.

As much of Europe and North America implement more restrictive policies to contain the spread of Covid-19, the city-state has brought the virus under control through strict distancing, aggressive testing and stringent quarantines.

Singapore has been so successful in reining in the pandemic that the World Economic Forum announced it would relocate its annual meeting from Switzerland to the Asian island in 2021 because of the persistent risk of coronavirus in Europe.

But controlling the health crisis has come at an economic cost, plunging Singapore into recession.

Chua Hak Bin, senior economist at Maybank, said easing restrictions would boost domestic spending but the economic impact would “only be incrementally positive” until border controls were significantly relaxed. 

“We think that can only happen in the fourth quarter of 2021 when vaccines are widely available in Singapore and other major markets, including our neighbours, and herd immunity is achieved,” Mr Chua added.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, said this month that trade and travel were the country’s “lifeblood” and that the “longer our own borders stay closed to travellers, the greater the risk of us permanently losing out as an international hub, consequently hurting our livelihoods”. 

Maybank has forecast that Singapore’s real GDP will grow 4.5 per cent in 2021 and 3 per cent in 2022 after a 5.7 per cent decline in 2020.

The first shipments of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine arrived this month in Singapore, which signed advance purchase agreements with Moderna and Sinovac. Singapore will start vaccinating healthcare workers on Wednesday, with the elderly and those with underlying health conditions also to be prioritised.

The Rain Vortex waterfall at the Jewel Changi airport mall in Singapore. Singapore’s prime minister has called travel and trade the island’s ‘lifeblood’ © Wallace Woon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Modular cold storage rooms in Singapore that can be temperature controlled to store coronavirus vaccines © Reuters

Singapore brought the virus under control after an outbreak in migrant worker dormitories triggered a wave of infections. The number of new locally transmitted cases reported daily has remained in the single digits or zero since the end of September, with Singapore reporting no local infections for a record 15 days last month. 

There are only 37 Covid-19 patients in Singaporean hospitals, none of whom are in intensive care units. The island nation has registered just 29 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

That success in containing the virus has however meant imposing harsh quarantines on migrant workers who live in tightly packed dormitories. Even under the latest relaxation of measures, labourers will face more restrictions than the rest of the population.

Labourers may leave dormitories only to be ferried to and from their workplace or may book an “exit pass” to visit “recreation centres” including barbers and minimarts for a maximum of three hours on their weekly rest day.

More than 300,000 labourers live in facilities where there can be up to 20 people sleeping on bunk beds in a single room.

Migrant workers, many of them from India, Bangladesh and China, account for more than 90 per cent of Singapore’s reported Covid-19 cases.

“It came at a tremendous price to their freedom,” said Alex Au, vice-president at Transient Workers Count Too, a non-government organisation. “They were effectively locked up from April to late August or September. It was equivalent to imprisonment without trial.”

“They are still putting them under extreme restrictions which [we] would say is completely disproportionate to the risk and hugely violative of their human rights to freedom,” Mr Au added.

Tan See Leng, second minister of manpower, acknowledged in a Facebook post that “measures have been tough on our migrant workers”.

But he added that Singapore was “relaxing restrictions cautiously” where possible. “The risk of Covid-19 re-emerging in our migrant worker dormitories is real and significant.”

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