SINGAPORE: With the COVID-19 outbreak expected to continue for some time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned on Thursday (Mar 12) that Singapore faces a "serious situation", with a "possible spike" in new cases, more clusters and new waves of infection from other countries.
However, the situation remains under control and Singapore will not raise its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Red, he said.
Speaking in a televised address, Mr Lee noted that the World Health Organization had declared the outbreak a pandemic, and it is expected to "continue for some time - a year, and maybe longer".
Despite Singapore having taken the situation with "utmost seriousness" and being held up by WHO as an example to emulate, the country faces a "serious situation".
"We expect more imported cases and therefore new clusters and new waves of infection, this time coming from many countries rather than one or two," said Mr Lee.
Singapore has 187 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, of which 96 cases have recovered and been discharged from hospital.
Mr Lee added that while Singapore has already imposed some travel restrictions, it will "have to tighten up further temporarily, though we cannot completely shut ourselves from the world".
In his remarks, Mr Lee also emphasised that the situation in Singapore "remains under control".
"We are not locking down our city like the Chinese, South Koreans or Italians have done. What we are doing now is to plan ahead for some of the more stringent measures, try them out and prepare Singaporeans for when we actually need to implement them."
FREEING UP RESOURCES FOR THE "SERIOUSLY ILL"
Mr Lee pointed out that if there are "very large numbers" of people sick with COVID-19, "we will not be able to hospitalise and isolate every case like we do now".
The majority of COVID-19 patients, "80 per cent of them", only experience mild symptoms and the ones that are most at risk are the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, he said.
"So with larger numbers, the sensible thing will be to hospitalise only the more serious cases, and encourage those with mild symptoms to see their family GP and rest at home - isolate themselves," said Mr Lee.
READ: 9 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore, including 2 who attended mass religious gathering in Malaysia
"This way, we focus resources on the seriously ill, speed up our response time and hopefully, minimise the number of fatalities."
Meanwhile, beds, intensive care units and other hospital facilities are being freed up to create additional capacity to meet any surge in COVID-19 numbers, said Mr Lee.
"But rest assured, any Singaporean who needs urgent medical care, whether for COVID-19 or other illnesses, will be taken care of," he added.
GET USED TO BASELINE MEASURES: PM LEE
Besides medical plans, there will also be a need for additional social distancing measures such as school suspensions, staggering of work hours or compulsory telecommuting, said the prime minister.
"They will be extra 'brakes', to be implemented when we see a spike in cases. The extra brakes will slow down transmission of the virus, prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed and help bring the numbers back down. After the situation improves, we can ease off and go back to the baseline precautions," he said.
READ: 2 Singaporeans who attended religious event in Malaysia diagnosed with COVID-19; MUIS closes mosques and suspends Friday prayers
Mr Lee said that because COVID-19 "will be with us for a long time", there are things all must get used to, such as practising good hygiene, adopting new social norms and discouraging large gatherings.
In the past week, several community activities - in particular those frequented by seniors - were suspended. Earlier on Thursday, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore announced the temporary closure of all mosques in Singapore after Singaporeans who had attended a religious gathering in Malaysia tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Archbishop of Singapore also said that Catholic masses here would remain suspended.
These are in line with measures implemented elsewhere in the world. In Saudi Arabia, umrah pilgrimages have been temporarily stopped. The Pope has also begun live-streaming sermons to avoid crowds on Saint Peter's Square.
Said Mr Lee: "The issue is of course not religion itself, but that the virus can spread quickly to many people in crowded settings, like religious gatherings and services."
"I hope Singaporeans understand that during this period we may need to shorten religious services or reduce our attendance at such gatherings. Please work with your religious leaders to make these practical adjustments," he added.