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By Aradhana Aravindan and Chen Lin
SINGAPORE (Reuters) -Singapore said on Thursday it will lift quarantine requirements for all vaccinated travellers from next month, joining a string of countries in Asia moving more firmly toward a "living with the virus" approach.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the financial hub will also drop requirements to wear masks outdoors and allow larger groups to gather.
"Our fight against COVID-19 has reached a major turning point," Lee said in a televised speech that was also streamed on Facebook. "We will be making a decisive move towards living with COVID-19."
Singapore was one of the first countries to shift from a containment strategy to new COVID normal for its 5.5 million population, but had to slow some of its easing plans due to subsequent outbreaks.
Now, as infection surges caused by the Omicron variant begin to subside in most countries in the region and vaccination rates improve, Singapore and other nations are removing a host of social distancing measures designed to stop the spread of the virus.
Singapore began lifting quarantine restrictions for vaccinated travellers from certain countries in September, with 32 countries on the list before Thursday's extension to vaccinated visitors from any nation.
Japan lifted this week restrictions imposed on Tokyo and 17 other prefectures that had limited hours of eateries and other businesses.
South Korea, where COVID infections this week topped 10 million but appear to be stabilizing, pushed back a curfew on eateries to 11 p.m., stopped enforcing vaccine passes and dropped quarantine for vaccinated travellers arriving from overseas.
Indonesia dropped quarantine requirements for all arrivals from overseas this week, and its Southeast Asian neighbours of Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia took similar measures, as they seek to rebuild tourism sectors.
Indonesia is also lifting a ban on travel for a Muslim holiday in early May that traditionally sees millions of people head to villages and towns to celebrate Eid al-Fitr at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Australia will lift its entry ban for international cruise ships next month, effectively ending all major COVID-related travel bans after two years.
New Zealand this week ended mandatory vaccine passes to visit restaurants, coffee shops and other public spaces. It will also lift vaccine mandates for a number of sectors from April 4 and open the borders for those on visa-waiver programmes from May.
Hong Kong, which has registered the most deaths per million people globally in recent weeks, plans to relax some measures next month, lifting a ban on flights from nine countries, reducing quarantine and reopening schools after a backlash from business and residents.
Singapore travel and movement related stocks surged on Thursday, with a gain of nearly 5% for airport ground-handling firm SATS and 4% for Singapore Airlines. Shares in public transport and taxi operator Comfortdelgro Corp rose 4.2%, their sharpest one-day gain in 16 months. The Straits Times index was up 0.8%.
Lee said Singapore officials would continue to remove restrictions at a measured pace.
"After this major step, we will wait a while to let the situation stabilise," he said. "If all goes well, we will ease up further."
As well as allowing up to 10 people to gather, Singapore will remove a 10:30 p.m. curfew on dining and alcohol sales, and allow more employees to return to their workplace.
Still, mask wearing mandates remain in place in several places including South Korea and Taiwan, while facial covering is almost ubiquitous in Japan.
China remains a major holdout, sticking to a "dynamic clearance" policy to stamp out flare-ups as quickly as possible. It reported around 2,000 new confirmed cases for Wednesday. The latest outbreak is tiny by global standards but the country conducts rigorous testing, seals off hotspots and isolates infected people in quarantine facilities to prevent a surge that could strain its healthcare system.
(Reporting by Chen Lin and Aradhana Aravindan, additional reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Ed Davies and Jane Wardell)