Will Imported Cases Lead to Another Surge? Singapore’s Containment Strategy, Explained.

Singapore has seen a steady stream of imported Covid-19 cases in the past couple of weeks. Fortunately, these cases have not filtered into the community as of yet. To find out how imported Covid-19 cases are contained and kept in check, it can be useful to map out what it takes for a traveller to come into Singapore, and what needs to be fulfilled before they are allowed to roam freely in the community.

Pre-departure

Precautions are taken before the travellers fly to Singapore. A screening is done to ensure that all cross-border movements are essential and conducted safely. Besides submitting a pre-trip health declaration form and checking visa validity, there is also a need for the traveller to obtain a Safe Travel pass, and possibly a Covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test.

Safe Travel Pass

Prior to taking off from their home country, travellers who are not Singapore Citizens (SCs) or Permanent residents (PRs) are required to get an entry approval into Singapore. Without which, they will be denied entry and may even have their existing work passes revoked.

There are three types of Safe Travel passes. The Periodic Commuting Arrangement allows the smooth movement of workers between Singapore and Malaysia. Employees need to stay in their country of employment for at least 90 days before returning to their home country for short-term home leave.

Reciprocal Green Lane allows short-term essential business and official travel in some counterpart countries and regions via non-stop flight routes, and the Air Travel Pass allows short-term visitors departing from seven countries/regions to enter Singapore.

Negative PCR Test

Some travellers are also required to prove that they are Covid-19 negative before being allowed to enter Singapore. As of 17 November 2020, all travellers who are not SCs or PRs, except for those from lower-risk countries and regions or those aged six and below, must take a PCR test within 72 hours before departure. To ensure credibility, they will need to produce a valid negative test result in English and from recognised laboratories.

Singapore is very strict when it comes to PCR tests. Even travellers who have previously recovered from Covid-19 will still need to take the PCR test. Should the pre-departure test results be positive, the traveller will then need to wait between 22 to 180 days before flying to Singapore. If it is 21 days or below, he will be denied boarding entry at the airport in his home country.

The requirements remain the same even for those who have received the Covid-19 vaccination as studies on its effectiveness in reducing transmission risk are still ongoing.

Evolving border restrictions

Singapore also monitors the Covid-19 outbreaks worldwide to determine the level of threat that travellers from various countries and regions bring.

Since 23 December 2020, UK travellers have been barred from entering Singapore, and 40 other countries, due to the recent reports of a potentially more contagious strain of the COVID-19 virus circulating there. The new strain is 70% more infectious, putting London on a newly imposed lockdown.

Should the traveller be a long-term pass holder or short-term visitor with recent travel history to the UK within the last 14 days, he will also not be allowed entry into, or transit through, Singapore, even if prior approval for entry has been obtained. Returning SCs and PRs, however, can still come back home.

On arrival

After touching down on Singapore soil, and during the immigration clearance process, travellers are isolated and may receive a SHN and/or an electronic monitoring device. They will also need to undergo another PCR test

PCR test

The traveller must do a PCR test at Changi Airport which costs S$196, with safe management processes in place. The test will be conducted by the appointed medical provider Raffles Medical Group, and involves inserting a long swab (which is very much like a long Q-tip) into the throat and both sides of the nose for a few seconds. The swab is then inserted into a container and sent to a lab for testing. Results are typically sent to the traveller within 48 hours.

Depending on the traveller type, officers at the immigration checkpoints will also give instructions on the allocation of dedicated SHN facilities.

Transportation

Friends or relatives are unable to pick the traveller up, and public transport is also not allowed. Instead, the host, which can be a host company representative or a government agency representative, will pick the traveller up at the arrival hall and transport him directly to the declared place of accommodation.

Since the traveller is not strictly in a bubble, there are still some margins for cross-contamination during this process with other visitors at the arrival hall.

Covid-19 test results

If tested positive, the traveller will be contacted and sent to a medical facility for treatment and monitoring, at their own expense. If tested negative, the host will transport him directly from the declared accommodation to the workplace, and back. The traveller must still adhere to a controlled itinerary for the first 14 days’ post arrival.

Quarantine

To ensure that any possible imported Covid-19 case does not leak into the community, travellers are quarantined strictly. They have to serve a mandatory Stay-Home-Notice (SHN), regardless of nationality, either at home, in dedicated SHN facilities, and/or while wearing an electronic monitoring device. All travellers will also need to adhere to Singapore’s prevailing public health regulations and requirements. This includes things like downloading and using the TraceTogether mobile application. 

Stay-at-Home (SHN)

All travellers are required to serve SHN and follow the health advisory, after touching down in Singapore. These travellers include SCs, PRs, long-term pass holders and short-term visitors. To ensure that these travellers are truly serving their SHN, Singapore implements checks and imposes punishment as deterrent.

Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) conducts checks in the form of house visits, calls or WhatsApp. First-time offenders who breach their SHN can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for up to six months, or both. Additional penalties include the revocation of immigration or work passes. From September to November in 2020, four people who beached their SHN had their work passes revoked.

Dedicated SHN facility

One of the available dedicated SHN facilities are hotels, that can house both travellers serving SHN and local hotel guests on a staycation. To prevent cross-contamination, SHN travellers are housed on a separate wing or on dedicated floors.

There are four types of SHN hotels;

  1. Government quarantine facilities (GQFs), contracted fully by the government for those serving quarantine;
  2. SHN-dedicated facilities for those serving SHN, such as incoming travellers;
  3. Partially contracted SHN dedicated facilities, which can take on leisure guests, provided they set up stringent protocols – segregated blocks, wings or floors – so as to separate those serving SHN from leisure guests or business travellers; and
  4. Hotels not listed as SHN hotels, but offer SHN rates to travellers who choose to serve their SHN there.

With international travel slowly opening up in Phase 3 of the Circuit Breaker, Singapore has also received more imported cases. With that in mind, authorities have been actively reviewing hotel protocols to better prevent the co-mingling of guests.

From 1 January 2021, costs of staying at dedicated SHN facilities for SCs and PRs who last left Singapore before 27 March will also not be waived, with charges to be paid upfront.

Some travellers can choose to opt out of dedicated SHN facilities and serve their 14-day SHN at their place of residence if they fulfil certain criteria, such as having a place of residence that he can occupy alone or with household members having the same travel history who are also serving the same duration and period of SHN. Travellers who face extenuating circumstances, such as those suffering from medical conditions or mobility issues, can also seek further assistance.

SHN electronic monitoring devices

Electronic monitoring devices can help to monitor and mitigate the risk of imported cases better. Eligible travellers aged 13 and above may be issued this wearable device at the immigration checkpoints by ICA or the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

These devices must be activated immediately upon reaching the SHN accommodation, and can be disposed according to existing e-waste disposal methods once the SHN is completed.

Post-arrival PCR test

On top of ensuring the isolation of travellers, there is also a need to monitor their health during the SHN period. As such, a compulsory Covid-19 test needs to be done at designated community testing facilities before the end of their SHN period. Travellers will receive the information on the scheduled appointment slot and venue via an SMS notification to ensure staggered hours and social distancing.

They will then have to travel from their place of residence to the designated testing facility, and return immediately after the test, using their own private vehicle or designated transport. The swab results will then be out within one to four days.

If tested positive

Besides sending the traveller to a medical facility for treatment, there will also be a check done on all human contact while the traveller is in Singapore. With live contact tracing via the TraceTogether app or token, this process can be very timely.

Possibilities of cross-contamination 

With all that being said, there are still possibilities of imported cases starting another surge. In the airport, hotel lobbies, swab centres and during transportation, travellers do have sufficient contact with the wider local community. A look at the Mandarin Orchard Hotel’s Covid-19 cluster will prove that this is the case. Considering that Singapore will be hosting larger scale events like the World Economic Forum in May, opportunities for cross-contamination will surely increase as well. While these individuals already have to adhere to social distancing and safe management protocols, it also hoped that they will be the first ones to get vaccinated in the upcoming month.

As a small nation with limited natural resources, Singapore will be unable to function if placed on a complete lockdown. It has to take calibrated risks in opening up its borders and its economies to ensure that its citizens livelihoods aren’t too badly affected. 


Author

Vanessa Ng

Contributor

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