By John Geddie

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore plans to test all 16,000 elderly residents of its nursing homes for the coronavirus over the coming weeks, as it edges towards exiting a nationwide lockdown next month.

The city-state recorded 768 new coronavirus on Friday, taking its total infections to 21,707 – one of the highest rates in Asia largely due to mass outbreaks among a young population of low-paid migrant labourers living in crowded dormitories.

It has recorded only 20 deaths from the virus, with the majority being over the age of 60. Four of the deaths have been residents of nursing homes.

“We have not seen widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in our nursing homes locally but we cannot let our guard down,” health minister Gan Kim Yong said at the announcement of the testing plan on Friday.

“We expect that more cases will be identified within our nursing homes with this extensive testing in progress.”

Under lockdown rules to curb the virus due to last until June 1, Singapore residents can only leave their homes for essential trips like grocery shopping and must wear a mask in public. Breaches can result in hefty fines or jail.

Gan said tests at all the nursing homes would be completed by early June, while a further 9,000 staff working at the homes have already been tested. Some 2,600 nursing home staff are also being moved into hotels to minimise the risk of infection, he added.

Singapore, which already has one of the highest testing rates in the world at 2,500 tests per 100,000 people, said earlier this week said it was planning a 500% increase in its virus-testing capacity.

(Reporting by John Geddie, editing by Louise Heavens)