SINGAPORE: A nationwide COVID-19 testing strategy is being developed, as the Government scales up its testing capacity, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (May 4).
“It will involve more extensive community surveillance, so that we are better able to detect any unlinked cases in the community,” he told members of parliament in a ministerial statement.
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Testing will be prioritised for higher-risk and more vulnerable groups - including those at nursing homes and healthcare workers with “high touch-points” with the community, said Mr Wong.
This will then be progressively expanded to other essential workers and the broader community, in line with the “expansion of our testing capacity”, he added.
Two key technological tools have been implemented - SafeEntry, a digital tool that logs visitors at all business premises and venues; as well as the TraceTogether app, which uses Bluetooth on phones to identify people who have been in near contact.
The ministries are also developing tools for the elderly and young who do not have smartphones, with more details to be announced shortly.
“Expanded testing and faster contact tracing are our two key strategies, but they are not a substitute for personal responsibility,” said Mr Wong.
“All of us still have to play a part - practise good personal hygiene habits, wear a mask when outside our homes and seek medical attention when unwell,” he said.
EASING CIRCUIT BREAKER MEASURES
As the Government considers easing “circuit breaker” measures, which are due to end in June, Mr Wong said that the authorities will “adopt the same evidence-based approach” to assess transmission risks and make careful adjustments.
“Where possible, and where we assess the risks to be low, we will consider easing, and allow some flexibility on the ground,” said Mr Wong, adding that the Government is also receiving appeals for more relaxation of these measures.
“We have to hold the line for now. And we hope Singaporeans understand why we need to be firm, and do their part to cooperate and comply with the measures,” he said.
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However, for those who need to make arrangements for caregiving needs, the authorities will allow one change of address during the circuit breaker period, said Mr Wong, such as cases for parents to move in with their children’s grandparents.
RESUMING NORMAL ACTIVITIES
Beyond easing the circuit breaker measures, a key challenge for Singapore would be to work out how to resume normal activities “without the virus flaring up again”, said Mr Wong.
“Easing on the measures prematurely and without proper safeguards may result in a second wave of local transmission and force a second round of tightening, which I’m sure no one wants,” he said.
Using the construction sector as an example, Mr Wong said that part of the resumption would mean changing the work culture and practices of all firms.
With 270,000 migrant workers in the sector, and with hundreds of workers from different dormitories coming together to work on a single worksite, one infected worker could create a huge cluster.
This means that the construction sector would have to “fundamentally change” the way it carries out its activities after the circuit breaker ends.
“Life after circuit breaker will not be a return to status quo ante,” he said.
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He added that the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Manpower are working with industry associations, business chambers and firms to help them adapt.
For instance, tele-communication will have to be an option for all staff. For those unable to tele-commute, companies will have to implement strict safe management practices including split team arrangements with no cross-deployment of staff, staggered working and lunch break hours and higher hygiene standards.
Staff should also not gather in groups within the workplace at any time.
“Wherever possible, we should make full use of technology to enable the implementation of these measures. All of these safeguards must be in place before we can allow workplaces to reopen and allow more people to resume going to work,” he said.
Industries critical to the economy and to local employment that keep Singapore connected to the world and global supply chains will be the first to resume activities, while sectors such as entertainment outlets or activities that attract crowds or place people in close contact will have to wait, he added.
This includes dining in at F&B outlets and religious gathering and services.
“We know it’s not easy and we really appreciate everyone’s understanding of the adjustments that have to be made to keep ourselves and our families safe during this time,” he said.
LOOK BACK AND LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE
While Singapore is “now still in the heat of battle”, Mr Wong said that the Government will “certainly look back and learn from the experience”.
The authorities will “comprehensively review” the pandemic and the Government’s responses “from start to end”, and improve.
“I have no doubt that we will find many things where we could have done better, and many changes that we should make to be better prepared for the next time.
“But for now, let’s stay focused on the urgent priorities ahead of us – we have to bring the outbreak under control on the two fronts, in the community and in the migrant worker dormitories, so that we may then resume activities gradually,” he said.