SINGAPORE: Singapore has done well in the fight against COVID-19 and stabilised the situation, but it must learn from its errors and do better next time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament on Wednesday (Sep 2).
“Judging by the health outcomes, we have done well, so far,” Mr Lee said, noting that Singapore’s fatality rate from COVID-19 is one of the lowest in the world, with new infections down to “just a handful” per day and fewer than 100 patients remaining in hospital.
But Mr Lee said Singapore’s COVID-19 response “was not without shortcomings”, adding that the pandemic has severely tested every government in the world and that no country has been perfect.
“With hindsight, we would certainly have done some things differently,” he said.
“For example, I wish we had known earlier that people with COVID-19 were infectious even when they were asymptomatic,” Mr Lee said.
“Then when we brought Singaporeans back home from all over the world in March, we would have quarantined all of them earlier, instead of only those returning from certain countries, so that the virus did not spread to their family members, colleagues and friends.
“And we would have tested all of them before releasing them from quarantine, whether or not they showed any symptoms, instead of assuming that no symptoms meant no infection.”
READ: Open mind needed to improve on social safety nets as greater challenges lie ahead for Singapore in post COVD-19 world: PM Lee
Mr Lee said the Government would have recommended everyone to wear face masks sooner than it did, but it had taken the "best available scientific advice" at the time.
“Once the World Health Organization recognised that asymptomatic transmission was a major problem, we changed our policy, and distributed face masks to everyone,” he said.
The Prime Minister said the Government would also have acted "more aggressively and sooner" on the migrant worker dormitories, stressing that it knew communal living in the dormitories posed an infection risk.
“Communal living in any form poses risks – on board ships, in army camps, student hostels, nursing homes,” he said. “We stepped up precautions. For a time, these seemed adequate. But then bigger clusters broke out in the dorms, which threatened to overwhelm us.”
READ: New COVID-19 cases at dormitories detected by routine testing is 'part of the plan': Josephine Teo
“WISDOM AFTER THE FACT”
Mr Lee said all these were “wisdom after the fact”, adding that Singapore must “learn from these errors” and do better next time.
“But in the fog of war, it is not possible always to make the perfect decisions,” he added.
“Yet we have to decide and move. We cannot afford to wait. The key is to watch things closely, learn from experience, and adapt our responses promptly as new information emerges and as the situation changes.”
Mr Lee said the scale and complexity of Singapore’s COVID-19 response meant “there have inevitably been some rough edges”.
On the resumption of work for migrant workers, Mr Lee acknowledged that the Government has made things “more difficult and burdensome” for employers, especially contractors.
“They have found it frustrating to deal with all the new rules, approvals and inspections, even as they try to get their businesses up and running again,” he said.
“But I hope they understand that we are doing our best to smooth things out for them, and are doing all this in order to keep our people safe.
“It is better that we make these measures work and get businesses to operate safely, than to suffer a new outbreak and have to shut down again.”
WORKING TOGETHER AGAINST COVID-19
COVID-19 has caused "massive upheaval in our lives", and that the Government's overriding consideration from the start was protecting the lives of Singaporeans.
"Many countries talked about flattening the infection curve, or letting the disease burn through the population until herd immunity developed," Mr Lee said.
"But that would have meant many Singaporeans getting ill, and perhaps thousands dying, especially the old and vulnerable. We were determined right from the very beginning not to go down that route. We did our utmost to contain the outbreak to keep Singaporeans safe."
This included mobilising all of Singapore's resources, including building up contact tracing and testing capabilities, expanding its healthcare system significantly, and mobilising the Home Team and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to help in dormitories.
Implementing the circuit breaker was a "very big move", and it demanded "major sacrifices" from Singaporeans, the Prime Minister said.
"But Cabinet decided we had to go ahead, to slow down the infection rate, and get things firmly under control, buy us time. Fortunately, we timed the circuit breaker right, and luckily, it worked."
READ: How the COVID-19 circuit breaker and safe distancing stopped other infectious diseases in their tracks
Mr Lee said Singapore has been able to deal with COVID-19 only because the public service, political leadership, businesses and the public have worked together and played their part.
For instance, he said officials, ministries and agencies have worked tirelessly to build new capabilities on the fly, and stepped up to do things beyond their normal scale or scope.
Political leaders defined priorities, made major decisions, directed civil servants to implement these decisions, won public support for the measures and took responsibility for them, he said.
This included whether to impose a circuit breaker, what activities to restrict, which businesses to keep open, whether to close and re-open schools.
“Businesses ... put their people to work furiously on solutions, often going well beyond their business mission,” Mr Lee added.
“They set up mask production lines, constructed Community Care Facilities, built up testing capacity, scoured the world for test equipment, test kits and reagents, and designed booths to swab patients safely and much more.”
Mr Lee said the overall COVID-19 response depended “critically” on Singaporeans working together and trusting the Government, adding that he was grateful for their cooperation, which will remain crucial as the fight goes on.
“Many Singaporeans’ lives have been severely affected, but they have borne these difficulties calmly and stoically,” he said. “Many volunteered to take part in the COVID-19 operations, sometimes on the frontline and also in community efforts to help others through these tough times.”
Watch: PM Lee addresses Parliament on Singapore's response to COVID-19, post-pandemic challenges, jobs
COVID-19 AND DISEASE X
Mr Lee said while the COVID-19 situation is currently stable, Singapore must not let its guard down, citing a recent survey that showed that almost half of the respondents were weary of safety measures.
“The irony is the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary,” he said.
Mr Lee said COVID-19 remains as infectious and potent as before, noting that what has changed are the measures and built up capabilities developed to contain it.
“If we relax these measures now because the numbers have come down, we will have a resurgence,” he added. "Just look at Europe and many other places in the world."
Mr Lee said COVID-19 will not be Singapore’s last public health crisis, describing how scientists talk about “Disease X” – a new disease that is unknown, highly infectious, deadly and mutates easily.
“So when COVID-19 appeared, people asked whether this was Disease X,” he said. “COVID-19 has been a disaster for the world, but it is not Disease X. It is by far not the worst new disease that can befall mankind.”
Mr Lee said it is only a matter of time before Disease X happens, adding that Singapore must learn from COVID-19 and how it deals with a pandemic, to “be as ready as we can”.
“We should build up our resilience, instincts and preparations. So that when Disease X does come one day, we will be prepared,” he stated.
Nevertheless, Mr Lee said Singapore must “rethink and reinvent” to continue to be successful in a post-COVID-19 world, pointing to areas like social safety nets, foreign workers and politics.
“Even as we manage the immediate situation, we must look forward, and prepare for life after COVID-19,” he said.
Watch his full speech: