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Stories from Singapore: The Prequel

December 13, 2021

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing from and about Singapore. I decided to save one story until our journey ended and we’d left the country. It began when we arrived, days before Omicron reared its ugly head, at a time when the country was starting to ease up on its COVID restrictions.

While Britain was partying away, Singapore had only just announced that more than two people were allowed to mix in public. Masks were and are mandatory – indoors and outdoors. If, as we did, you fell into conversation with fellow diners at an outside restaurant, nervous waiters would ask you to keep your distance. They were afraid that if you were noticed chatting at close quarters, their restaurant might lose its licence and they might lose their jobs. Noticed by whom? The police, perhaps, or maybe vigilant fellow-citizens.

It would be wrong to describe Singapore as a police state without first defining what a police state is, even though some people bandy the phrase about in private. Let’s just say that the authorities are pretty uncompromising when it comes to enforcing the law. In COVID terms, that’s fine by me, coming from a country where people routinely travel on trains without masks even though the operators mandate their use on all journeys. And where last year the government threw Christmas parties while the rest of us were confined to quarters.

But what happened to us after we arrived in the Far East, or more specifically to my wife, seemed to dent the country’s image of remorseless efficiency.

When we arrived, as is now the case in England, we were required to take a PCR test. That was on top of the test we were asked to take before we left, which was negative. The testing centre was at the airport. After getting through immigration, we were escorted there from the plane. We were given a PCR test, and were then under instruction to go to our hotel and remain there in quarantine until the test result came though by email. Both results came back negative a few hours later. The hotel then told us that we could leave our room and move about freely. Which we did.

Things got rather strange shortly afterwards. Someone claiming to be a doctor working for the Ministry of Health contacted my wife and told her that her test was “inconclusive”. She was unable to continue the conversation because the battery in the phone died. We decided to ignore the call, because we’d heard that there was a scam going round wherein someone claiming to be a government official was calling people, telling them they were positive, and demanding credit card details to pay for a new test.

A few hours later there was another call. It was not a scam. This time the caller said that the test had been positive. How so, asked my wife, given that the testing centre had formally told us that it was negative? To cut a long story short, it seems that the ministry were looking at a detailed analysis of the test which, according to them, showed that she was highly likely to be shedding the virus. Therefore, apparently, they needed to do more tests. What’s more, they would have to be done at a government facility. Under a written order from the ministry, she was to remain there for up to ten days, or until they were satisfied that she was actually free of COVID.

Within a couple of hours, three people in hazmat suits arrived at the room and escorted her through a service lift to a waiting bus. On the way to the facility, the bus stopped and collected another person who was showing COVID symptoms. The facility itself was a hotel east of the city that had been commandeered by the government to house people suspected of having COVID, or newly discharged from hospital.

When she arrived she was told that she might have to share her room with someone else. This was a good thing, apparently, because the two of them could give each other support during a difficult time. So it was possible that she, who had twice tested negative within the previous four days, might might have to spend days in the close company of a stranger who was either suspected of having the virus or had been discharged from hospital. She kicked up about this, and in the end was not required to share.

The room was OK. It had a balcony and Wi-Fi. In the grand tradition of quarantine hotels, the three meals a day were of indifferent quality. She was required to pay for the room, the food and for the tests that followed.

The next day, she had her first PCR. It was a pretty brutal exploration of her nose, almost as if the person doing the testing was under instruction to leave no part of her nasal passage un-probed. The next day the test came back negative. She was then given another test and had blood taken for a serology test, which, according to the best advice she could find, served no purpose in establishing whether or not she had COVID.

The following day, by which time she had been locked up for three days, the second PCR came back negative, and she was finally released. Meanwhile, she had heard from staff at the facility that there were four hundred other people who had also tested negative, and were also locked up. In conversations with two others who were waiting leave, she learned that they had had similar a experience to hers.

While all this was happening, I was free to go out and about, despite having been at close quarters with someone suspected of having the virus.

Fortunately my wife is made of strong stuff, and easily came through what to some might have been a frightening experience. Because neither the airport testing centre nor the ministry were prepared to share the detailed test results, she was unable to challenge the decision. All they would do was confirm, both by phone and text message, that her original test was negative.

The whole thing was bizarre in the extreme. What you could say is that while England, where we live, has adopted a laissez-faire approach to COVID mitigation over the past few months, Singapore has adopted a belts, braces and, to put it unkindly, straitjacket regime. So much so that you have the ministry of health seemingly not trusting the test provider it appointed to be the gateway that catches incoming COVID sufferers.

Was my wife’s incarceration the result of internal politics within the ministry of health, a culture of arse-covering or an “abundance of caution”? Who knows? Perhaps they were aware of Omicron even then, and were being ultra-careful.

But to induce people to visit the country with the promise of a clear and straightforward process that would enable them to go about their business within hours of arrival, and then lock them up against the advice of their own testing facility, seemed wrong.

For the two of us, who were there for a much-needed break, the impact was two days of uncertainty followed by three days of confinement for my wife. We really didn’t know how the whole thing was going to play out, except that there was a distinct possibility that for ten of the sixteen days of our holiday, one of us would be involuntarily locked away.

As it turned out, she was released early, the tests having proven beyond doubt that she didn’t have the virus. For the rest of our stay in Singapore, we had a great time, until the British government, by imposing a vaguely-worded requirement for pre-departure test before returning to England, provided the chaotic bookend to the trip that I described in an earlier post.

It was our first long haul trip since COVID emerged. Perhaps we had a false sense of security after making two road trips to France in the autumn that were as smooth as silk. The lessons learned (which I thought we knew already), are assume nothing, don’t place absolute trust in the assurances of governments either in your home or host country, and be prepared for any eventuality.

As I mentioned in the previous post, ours was a first-world problem. Not in the shock-horror category. More a pain in the arse on both ends of the journey and for different reasons. On reflection, perhaps we should have waited a little longer before venturing further afield than our European backyard.

But hey, it’s an interesting memory to add to our archive of hoary old travellers’ tales that will one day bore our grandchildren into catatonia.

From → Postcards, Social, Travel, UK

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