SINGAPORE: Singapore is “only at the beginning of a very long fight” against COVID-19, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Wednesday (Mar 25) as he warned that the outbreak could continue for “many more months until the end of the year and perhaps even beyond”.
In an update on the Government’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak here, Mr Wong outlined how the country has ramped up its measures over the past weeks. These will be kept under constant review with Singapore now at a “critical phase” in its fight against the disease, he said.
After experiencing an initial wave of imported cases from China, Singapore is now facing a second and much bigger wave of imported cases from the rest of the world, especially from the United States and Europe.
This reflects the speed at which the virus is spreading outside of China and around the world, Mr Wong told the House.
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He added that there is no telling how long this current wave of returnees and imported cases will last as more Singaporeans may want to return home with lockdowns being announced by more countries.
To respond to the new challenge, Mr Wong noted that Singapore has been rapidly adjusting and updating its measures.
These include tightening border controls, with the latest being announced on Sunday to disallow short-term visitors from entering or transiting in Singapore, as well as limiting returning work pass holders to those providing essential services like healthcare and transport.
The minister described this as “very significant moves” for a small and open economy like Singapore but in an "unprecedented crisis", authorities had to move decisively to keep the country's borders safe.
More importantly, the Government wanted to focus the country's resources on the large numbers of Singaporeans returning from overseas. These numbers are significant, with about 1,200 Singaporeans coming back from the United Kingdom and the United States every day, he told the House.
Currently, there are more than 200,000 Singaporeans overseas, he added.
Besides identifying those with symptoms as early as possible at the airport, the Government is expanding its testing capacity to test as many as possible. Beyond tests, it is also important to isolate returnees by having them serve a 14-day stay-home notice.
Singapore now has 38,000 people serving out stay-home notices and the numbers will grow with the rising number of returnees, he said.
While preparing for more returnees, the Government also does not want Singaporeans to be travelling abroad at this time, said Mr Wong.
Hence, the country raised its travel advisory to the highest level last week, urging Singaporeans to defer all travel abroad with immediate effect.
It was also announced on Tuesday that those who insist on travelling will have to pay the full costs of hospital charges if they are admitted for COVID-19-related treatments.
MEASURES UNDER "CONSTANT REVIEW"
When it comes to preventing local transmission, Mr Wong said it remains critical to quickly identify and isolate confirmed cases and their close contacts through contact tracing and quarantine.
As of Tuesday night, there were around 2,500 persons under quarantine, be it at home or Government quarantine facilities, he told the House, while adding that authorities will continue with “tough enforcement” for both quarantine cases and those issued with stay-home notices.
The Government is also concerned about the number of locally transmitted cases, especially the ones that are unlinked. Given that the country is seeing more of such cases, this calls for "a whole range of additional public health measures to slow down the spread of the virus", he said.
These are applied at different levels, the minister continued. For instance, there are baseline measures, such as daily temperature taking, refraining from shaking hands and practices to uphold personal hygiene which should be continued for a sustained period.
Beyond that, safe distancing measures which serve as “extra brakes” to help slow down the spread, have been introduced.
The first set, announced last Friday, suspended all activities for seniors, all events and gatherings with 250 or more participants, as well as requiring public venue operators to ensure separation of at least a metre between patrons.
While these measures have brought about some changes, such as fewer crowded venues and alternate seats marked in dining venues, the country “will have to move faster”.
“We still hear anecdotes of people going to discos, night clubs, and gathering in large groups. Our big worry is that these can become super-spreader events, spawning new clusters and potential runaway outbreaks,” he said.
This is why authorities announced “another set of brakes” on Tuesday, with the aim of limiting gatherings outside of work and school to less than 10 people.
“These are very major moves to slow the spread of the virus,” the minister said. “We recognise the inconvenience and disruption that these measures will bring to people’s lives, and to businesses, but we have no easy options.”
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Mr Wong noted that this is the reality that countries around the world are facing while fighting COVID-19.
“The more we try to stop or slow down the virus, the steeper will be the damage on our economies.
“We have to do what is necessary from the public health point of view first – to save lives, slow down the virus – and thereafter, do our best to manage the economic consequences,” he said, noting that the new measures have been shared with the team at the Ministry of Finance which will take these into consideration for the second support package set to be announced on Thursday.
“We are now at a critical phase in our fight against the virus,” said the minister, who co-chairs a multi-ministry task force tackling the outbreak here.
Even with the latest measures, it is also possible that the number of infected cases could continue to rise. If that is the case, Singapore may need “more drastic measures”, such as suspending schools and closure of some workplaces aside from those providing essential services.
“So we will keep the measures under constant review. If the situation worsens, we will apply extra brakes.
“If the situation improves, we may be able to ease off a little bit but not go back to baseline … because the pandemic will probably still not be over for quite some time,” he said.
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Mr Wong also urged all Singaporeans to cooperate and take the latest set of measures “very seriously”.
“The fight against the virus cannot be done by frontline agencies, frontline workers or government agencies alone,” he said. “Each and every one of us has to actively do our part.”
In his speech, Mr Wong also paid tribute to the healthcare workers, public servants and officials who have been working around the clock, as well as unsung heroes in various sectors like cleaning, security, airport management, media, hotels, F&B and transport.
“And there are many Singaporeans who have stepped up in their own ways looking after one another and caring for our fellow Singaporeans,” he said as he paused twice, to take a sip of water while visibly emotional.
After taking a moment to compose himself, he added: “Words are not sufficient to express our appreciation for so many Singaporeans going all out to fight the virus and I just want to say a big thank you to everyone who is doing their part."
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“The coronavirus is, without a doubt, the biggest threat the world and Singapore has faced for decades.
"So let us rally together and rise to this challenge because as SG United, we can beat the virus together and we will emerge stronger and toughened after this crisis," he said.