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10 Jan 2022

10th Jan 2022

NOTICE PAPER NO. 875

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Foo Mee Har

MP for West Coast GRC

 

Question No. 2214

 

To ask the Minister for Health whether the Ministry can provide an update on (i) Singapore’s ability to cope with increasing number of infections arising from the COVID-19 Omicron variant (ii) the breakdown by country of origin for imported COVID-19 Omicron cases and (iii) the strategies to mitigate imported cases.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 890

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong

MP for Hougang

 

Question No. 2265

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) what is the Ministry’s strategy in containing the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19; (b) what measures should Singaporeans expect to be taken; and (c) how will these measures differ from previous measures implemented to contain the spread of the Delta variant or COVID-19 virus generally.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 890

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Chua Kheng Wee Louis

MP for Sengkang GRC

 

Question No. 2256

 

To ask the Minister for Health in view of the emergence of the COVID-19 Omicron variant globally and subsequent tightening of border measures, what are the key quantitative or qualitative metrics and thresholds that the Government will consider before making a decision for domestic re-opening plans to be rolled back and safe management measures tightened.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 891

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song

MP for Aljunied GRC

 

Question No. 2230

 

To ask the Minister for Health what is the impact from the emergence of the COVID-19 Omicron variant on the plans for Singapore to live with COVID-19 as an endemic disease, in terms of the timelines for reopening the economy and permitting more social and cultural activities involving the gatherings of people.


NOTICE PAPER NO. 890

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Leon Perera

MP for Aljunied GRC

 

Question No. 2278

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) what is the expected impact on ICU utilisation based on the Ministry’s modelling for the COVID-19 Omicron variant; (b) at what ICU utilisation rate will hospitals begin to defer non-urgent clinical services; (c) what is the number of healthcare workers working in ICUs currently as compared to December 2020; and (d) what permanent changes have been made to increase healthcare capacity and in particular ICU capacity and scalability since (i) the start of the pandemic and (ii) the start of 2021.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 882

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Jessica Tan Soon Neo

MP for East Coast GRC

 

Question No. 2244

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) whether he can provide an update on the COVID-19 vaccination rate of those eligible for vaccination aged 18 and below; and (b) whether COVID-19 vaccination will be made a requirement for participation in group activities in schools and educational institutions.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 864

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Yip Hon Weng

MP for Yio Chu Kang

 

Question No. 2173

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) whether children who are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination but whose parents do not approve of their vaccination, have their medical bills covered by the Government if they contract COVID-19; and (b) whether unvaccinated children have to be subjected to Vaccination Differentiation Safe Management Measures in schools and shared spaces in public.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 893

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms He Ting Ru

MP for Sengkang GRC

 

Question No. 2350

 

To ask the Minister for Health whether the Ministry has plans to apply vaccination differentiated measures to children aged between 5-11.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 877

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Miss Cheng Li Hui

MP for Tampines GRC

 

Question No. 2217

 

To ask the Minister for Health with regard to containing the Omicron variant of COVID-19 (a) whether the Ministry has assessed a need for more vaccination doses after the booster jab; and (b) how does the Ministry plan to utilise the anti-viral pills as part of its strategy.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 887

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Pritam Singh

MP for Aljunied GRC

 

Question No. 2249

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) how many Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) respectively are deemed to be medically ineligible for COVID-19 vaccination; and (b) excluding these persons, how many Singaporeans and PRs respectively remain unvaccinated as of December 2021.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 890

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong

MP for Hougang

 

Question No. 1411

 

To ask the Minister for Health with regard to the number of deaths in Singapore due to COVID-19 in 2021 (a) how many were fully vaccinated at the at the time of infection; and (b) of the deceased who were fully vaccinated, what is the breakdown in numbers of those who received vaccines from (i) Pfizer-BioNTech (ii) Moderna (iii) Sinovac (iv) Sinopharm and (v) other vaccines to be specified.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 866

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Christopher de Souza

MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC

 

Question No. 1348

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) what are the additional measures being taken in light of the COVID-19 Omnicron variant; and (b) whether such measures will impact plans to reduce restrictions on group sizes for dining out and employees returning to the workplace.

 

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 893

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Dr Wan Rizal

MP for Jalan Besar GRC

 

Question No. 1459

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) whether hospitals will be able to cope with the possible surge of infections due to the emergence of the COVID-19 Omicron variant; and (b) what are the measures and steps taken to ensure that processes and protocols remain efficient.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 890

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Hazel Poa

Non-Consituency MP

 

Question No. 1421

 

To ask the Minister for Health whether vaccinated differentiation measures will be imposed on children.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 890

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms He Ting Ru

MP for Sengkang GRC

 

Question No. 2288

 

To ask the Minister for Health (a) whether there are plans to offer non-mRNA COVID-19 vaccines to children in the age groups of 5-11 and 12-18; and (b) if so, when can these vaccines be expected.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 866

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Christopher de Souza

MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC

 

Question No. 1349

 

To ask the Minister for Health in light of local and international data indicating that COVID-19 booster shots provide some protection against new COVID-19 variants and the increasing possibility of new variants that are highly transmissible appearing every few months, whether all persons will be encouraged to take booster shots every six months.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 872

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR ORAL ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON OR AFTER 11 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Darryl David

MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC

 

Question No. 2196

 

To ask the Minister for Health whether vaccination differentiation measures will be adopted in the community with regard to children aged 5 to 11 who have not undergone COVID-19 vaccination.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 898

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON OR AFTER 12 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Ms Ng Ling Ling

MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC

 

Question No. 1473

 

1473. To ask the Minister for Health whether the Ministry has plans for (i) a second COVID-19 vaccination booster shot and (ii) a recurring annual COVID-19 vaccination programme, for the protection of the population against the possible emergence of new COVID-19 variants.

 

NOTICE PAPER NO. 879

NOTICE OF QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

FOR THE SITTING OF PARLIAMENT ON 10 JANUARY 2022

                                            

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Lim Biow Chuan

MP for Mounbatten

 

Question No. 2232

 

To ask the Minister for Health whether the Ministry is continuing with its efforts to engage Singaporeans and permanent residents who refuse to be vaccinated and to educate them on the benefits of vaccination.


Answer

 

1.     Mr Speaker Sir, with your permission, may I address questions for oral answers 1 to 12, and questions for written answers 34 to 38 in the order paper please? Then Senior Minister of State Dr Janil Puthucheary and then Minister Chan Chun Sing will address another two set of questions on child vaccination. May I request that we deliver our replies, and then all three of us take supplementary questions please?

 

2.     Singapore just weathered a significant COVID-19 transmission wave, caused by the Delta variant, which is still active in many parts of the world.

 

3.     By working together, making collective sacrifices to restrain our social interactions, watching out for each other, and implementing sound policies, we have overcome perhaps the most difficult part of the pandemic.

 

4.     As of now, our hospital situation is stable, with 11 COVID-related ICU cases. Most activities have resumed, and we are meeting up with friends and loved ones. Our society has become much more resilient to COVID-19 than before and this is an important milestone.

 

A New Omicron Wave

 

5.     But a new Omicron wave is upon us. If we work together, we can ride through the wave. Once we have done so, we will be even more resilient than now, even more prepared to live with COVID-19 as an endemic disease.

 

6.     When Omicron first burst onto the global scene, we immediately introduced measures such as restricting travel from affected countries in Africa, enhancing testing for all travelers, isolating cases in hospital, and reinstating stringent contact tracing and quarantine for Omicron cases.

 

7.     These measures will not stop Omicron from taking root and spreading in Singapore, given its high transmissibility. However, they have helped to delay its emergence, giving us precious time to understand this variant better, to prepare ourselves.

 

Characteristics of Omicron

 

8.     The characteristics of Omicron have now become clearer. This is what we know today.

 

9.     First, local and overseas evidence show that it is far more transmissible than Delta variant, so we must expect a wave that could be several times larger than the Delta wave. So if Delta infections reached a sustained incidence of about 3,000 cases a day, Omicron could perhaps reach 10,000 to 15,000 cases a day, or even more. Cases are likely to double every two to three days. So once cases start to rise steeply, within a couple of weeks, we may see 3,000 Omicron cases a day.

 

10.     Second, there has been consistent international evidence showing that Omicron infections are less severe than Delta. The incidence of hospitalisation and severe illness is lower, and there are also indications that any hospital stays are generally shorter. Indeed, the clinical outcomes, particularly the number of people who become severely ill or die, are much more important than the topline number of infection cases.

 

11.     Mr Speaker Sir, may I show a couple of slides on screen just to illustrate this clearly? This set of two graphs describes the situation in South Africa. The blue line, top and bottom is the same line, shows the number of infections, so you can see three humps, reflecting the three waves that they have gone through, the first is Beta, then Delta in the middle, and the latest, the tallest is Omicron, and it is plotted against the scale on the left axis. The grey part for the top graph shows hospitalisations, plotted against the scale on the right axis. And so you can see in the latest wave, the number of hospitalisations is proportionally lower than the previous two waves. The bottom graph is even more stark. The red area shows the number deaths plotted against the scale on the right axis. During the Omicron wave, the red area is actually very small, the number of deaths is proportionally much lower than the past two waves. Next slide is similar for the UK. Proportionally much fewer hospitalisations and fewer deaths.

12.     A study by health authorities in South Africa showed that 4.9% of cases were admitted to hospitals during the Omicron wave, compared to 13.7% during the Delta wave. Among the patients admitted to hospital during the Omicron wave, they were 73% less likely to have severe diseases.

 

13.     In the UK, the risk of being admitted to hospital or emergency care with Omicron was about half of that of Delta.

 

14.     Data from Denmark also showed that about 0.8% of Omicron cases were hospitalised, lower than the 1.2% rate of hospitalisation among cases infected with other variants.

 

15.     This has also been borne out by our own local experience. In Singapore, as of last night, we have recorded 4,322 Omicron infections so far, including 308 seniors aged 60 and above. Eight of them, out of the 4,322, needed oxygen supplementation, and all of them have been taken off oxygen after a short few days. None required ICU care as yet.

 

16.     In comparison, if these 4,322 infections had instead been caused by Delta, we would expect 50 to 60 patients needing oxygen supplementation, ICU care or to die.

 

17.     However, we should be careful in interpreting these observations. It is early days and the circumstances of each country are different. South Africa for example, has a very young population and a high level of natural immunity, even though their vaccination coverage is low.

 

18.     The UK has both high levels of vaccination and natural immunity, and this current Omicron outbreak is riding on the back of a protracted Delta outbreak, which worsens clinical outcomes.

 

19.     Further, Omicron transmits much faster and infects more people. So even if a small percentage of infected individuals falls very sick, because of the large base of infections, it can lead to many people needing ICU care, or die.

 

20.     Third, vaccines, especially boosters, retain substantial protection against severe disease. Indeed, the most recent studies in the UK found that for vaccinated individuals, the risk of hospitalisation for Omicron is reduced by 72% compared to the unvaccinated. With a booster shot, vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation is estimated to be 88%.

 

21.     Currently, Omicron has spread to over 130 countries, and has become the dominant strain in many places. Hence, we lifted the suspension of flights from affected African countries and aligned the healthcare protocols between Omicron and other COVID-19 variants.

 

Our Responses

 

22.     Members would like to know our strategy in responding to the Omicron wave.

 

23.     Given that it is less severe than the Delta variant, and vaccines still work against it, our key objective remains, which is to live with COVID-19 as an endemic disease. Then, we can lead life as normally as possible, and continue to build a bright future for Singapore and our children.

 

24.     That includes not locking down our borders, which will inflict tremendous pain on families, workers, businesses, and also the mental well-being of our people. In any case, a severe lock down strategy will likely delay but not prevent the inevitability of Omicron finding its way into our community.

 

25.     There are two factors working in our favour.

 

· First, a high percentage of our population is vaccinated and more are getting their boosters each day.

 

· Second, unlike many European countries which have to contend with a double whammy of a concurrent Delta and Omicron wave, we have only recently gone through our Delta wave. So we are not likely to have to ride through two rapidly rising infection waves.

 

26.     In recent days, our overall local infection number is creeping up, to a few hundred a day, with Omicron accounting for about 40% of all cases. Given the transmissibility of Omicron, we expect the numbers to rise steeply in the coming weeks and Omicron will become the dominant variant within a few weeks.

 

27.     The responses that we have developed against Delta will continue to be relevant against Omicron, with some adjustments. And there are three responses essentially.

 

28.     First, vaccination and boosters remain key. In countries where Omicron has spread, the unvaccinated and under-vaccinated are still most prone to falling seriously ill when infected.

 

29.     Mr Dennis Tan asked for a breakdown of COVID-19 deaths. There were 802 such deaths in 2021, of whom 555 were not fully vaccinated. Although the unvaccinated is a small proportion of our population, they contributed to 70% of the deaths in 2021.

 

30.     The remaining 247 were vaccinated with a range of locally available vaccines. I am going to read out some crude incidence rates, but be mindful, we are calculating this based on quite a small sample of 247 deaths of individuals who are vaccinated. And they are as follows: 79 deaths per 100,000 for non-fully vaccinated persons overall; 11 deaths per 100,000 for those vaccinated with Sinovac, 7.8 per 100,000 for Sinopharm, 6.2 per 100,000 for Pfizer-BioNTech, and 1 per 100,000 for Moderna.

 

31.     These rates are only indicative as I mentioned, sample size is small and as they also do not account for other factors which may affect mortality such as the age and the timing of vaccination.

 

32.     Around 132,000 individuals aged 18 years and above remain unvaccinated today, while around 300 persons are medically ineligible. We will continue to try to convince those who are medically eligible to get vaccinated, through their primary care physicians, public messaging and the media. But as Members will appreciate, as the number gets smaller, it becomes harder and harder to convince them.

 

33.     For those who are homebound, our Mobile Vaccination Teams can visit their homes to vaccinate them.

 

34.     Over the past months, we have managed to vaccinate well over 90% of every eligible age group. It is quite an achievement. We are especially happy to see that amongst seniors aged 60 to 69, and 70 and above, 96% and 95% have been fully vaccinated respectively.

 

35.     As for those aged 12 to 19 years, 95% are fully vaccinated. For the even younger ones aged 5 to 11, we have just started vaccinating them. The response has been good and operations have been smooth.

 

36.     At this time, only the Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty vaccine is authorised for use in ages below 18 years. We will continue to closely monitor the availability of other vaccines, including non-mRNA vaccines that are approved for use in children.

 

37.     At the same time, our vaccine booster programme is gathering pace. About 46% of our population has received their boosters. We have recently brought some 900,000 individuals aged 18 to 29 into the booster programme, of whom 700,000 are already eligible to receive their boosters today. Our booster coverage will continue to expand over the month of January.

 

38.     We have also set a validity period for full vaccination status of 270 days, as a strong signal to our population, please get your boosters promptly.

 

39.     As to whether there is a need for further booster shots, fourth shot, fifth shot, it is too early to tell. Today, Israel is the only country that has authorised a fourth dose for non-immunocompromised individuals.

 

40.     For an endemic infectious disease like Influenza, we can draw some inference from there. This virus mutates frequently, so people receive vaccinations every year to protect themselves against it, without many problems, or the need for disruptive border closures and social restrictions each time there is an infection wave. It is a possible future scenario when we live with COVID-19 as an endemic disease.

 

41.     MOH and EC19V will continue to monitor local and international data on the durability of protection from vaccine boosters and the evolution of the virus, to assess the need for further vaccinations.

 

42.     Second, we will continue to enhance our healthcare capacity. We have made preparations to ramp up capacity and manpower of the Home Recovery Programme, Community Treatment Facilities (CTFs) and the public hospitals. We stand ready to provide up to 350 ICU beds, 2,000 isolation beds and 4,000 CTF beds for COVID-19 cases with a couple of weeks’ notice.

 

43.     Particularly, for hospital ICU capacity, existing single rooms and isolation rooms can be repurposed into additional ICU beds when required. Medical equipment and consumables are ready. Manpower is always a limiting factor, but ICU staff has increased by 12% over the past year to about 1,800 now, and we have trained or are training about 500 more staff to assist with ICU operations.

 

44.     Anti-viral medications for COVID-19 have been used to treat vulnerable patients who are at high risk of falling severely ill. When authorised for use and made available in Singapore, these oral anti-viral medications will be important additions to the range of COVID-19 therapeutic agents already in use locally. We have signed or are negotiating supply agreements for these medications, but unfortunately, I am not at liberty to release details due to confidentiality obligations in these contracts.

 

45.     Outside of the hospitals, we will be enhancing our healthcare protocols to right site patients, so that hospital resources go to those who need them the most. The MTF has recently announced our partnership with primary care doctors to care for patients who are recovering at home after being tested positive with Antigen Rapid Tests, under what we termed Protocol 2. This will help them safely recover and return to normal activities as soon as possible.

 

46.     I should caution Members against thinking that coping with a transmission wave successfully is a matter of recruiting more healthcare workers and building more ICU facilities. Our objective is not to have more people falling very sick and admitted to ICU, but in fact to avoid it.

 

47.     Hence, we size our emergency healthcare capacity based on what is sustainable and practical, bearing in mind this is a crisis of a generation, the capacity needed cannot be provided within our usual redundancy provision, and ICU-trained staff do not just increase multi-fold overnight or even over a few months. Hence, we have to try to temper the infection numbers through Safe Management Measures and exercising self-restraint in our social interactions.

 

48.     So vaccinations, expansion of healthcare capacity, and Safe Management Measures must work in tandem, and we must strike a balance between the three factors.

 

49.     We cannot, for example, over-liberalise social activities, remove all social restrictions, let infections rise uncontrollably and leave the healthcare system to bear the consequences. Neither do we swing to the other extreme, protect the healthcare system at all cost, go for a zero-COVID strategy, and lock down our borders and society which will cause tremendous suffering to our people.

 

50.     How the three factors balance off each other, is a matter of judgment depending on the pandemic situation. It will be too rigid to set metrics and parameters to trigger social restrictions, as we need to respond flexibly and appropriately to the twists and turns that the pandemic situation may take.

 

51.     This brings us to the third response, which is Safe Management Measures. In recent months, instead of imposing across-the-board social restrictions, we introduced Vaccination-Differentiated Safe Management Measures (VDS).

 

52.     This is because unvaccinated individuals are at far higher risk of falling severely ill. This group have consistently taken up two-thirds of our ICU beds, throughout the pandemic. By restricting their social interactions, we protect them against infections and serious illnesses and taking up hospital resources. The rest of society who have been vaccinated can also then live life more normally.

 

53.     However, there are presently no plans to introduce VDS for children aged 12 and below in community, public, preschool and school settings. This is due to a combination of reasons, namely, children are less likely to develop severe illnesses when infected, and we want to preserve as much as possible universal access to holistic education for children.

 

54.     For now, children aged 12 and below who are Singapore Citizens, Permanent Residents or Long-Term Pass Holders, and did not travel recently will continue to have their COVID-19 medical bills fully covered by the Government. This is regardless of their vaccination status.

 

55.     So in general, while we have a strict VDS system in place, to enable society to carry on normal lives as much as possible while protecting the unvaccinated, the rules are much less strict for children, based on the reasons I explained earlier.

 

56.     Members asked if we are likely to tighten up social activities because of the Omicron wave. When the Delta wave subsided late last year, we refrained from being too jubilant and over relaxing restrictions. That would have been a mistake. We kept our mask requirements, did not allow back night entertainment, and kept group sizes at five.

 

57.     It is the MTF’s hope that we can ride through the Omicron wave with the current Safe Management Measures posture. If we have to tighten the restrictions, it will be as a last resort when our healthcare system is under severe pressure.

 

Conclusion

 

58.     I believe that just as we have ridden through the Delta wave with unity and resolve, we will be able to do so again with the Omicron wave. Omicron is a different enemy, but we are much better prepared and much more resilient than before. And after the Omicron wave passes, which it will, we would have taken another huge step towards living with COVID-19. Singapore will be one of the best and safest places to live in on Earth.