SINGAPORE: The Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) comments on how the Government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic are “baseless and false allegations”, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on Sunday (Jul 5).
Mr Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, was responding to comments made by SDP chairman Paul Tambyah on Friday during a pre-General Election forum organised by the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS).
Dr Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert, had said that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued "a statement telling the employers they were not allowed to bring their workers for testing".
He had also spoken about the Government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during an interview with historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin, which was livestreamed on The Online Citizen's Facebook and YouTube pages.
During the interview, Dr Tambyah said he was concerned that the ministerial committee was "front and centre", rather than medical experts. That was different from the SARS outbreak in 2003, when "you had scientists and public health people in the front".
He added that the Ministry of Health (MOH) was "blindsided" because the statement about testing workers was issued by MOM, and not the "public health community".
Mr Wong said it is not true that authorities discouraged the testing of workers against the advice of medical experts.
“These are baseless and false allegations,” he said.
“The MTF (multi-ministry task force) has always relied on scientific evidence, and the advice of medical experts in our work, and in coming up with all decisions,” he added.
“Medical experts are an integral part of our team, we involve them in all our deliberations,” Mr Wong said, noting that at every press conference held by the task force, the Ministry of Health's director of medical services Kenneth Mak was present.
Mr Wong said that while he “fully respected” Dr Tambyah as a leading expert in his field, “it is very disappointing that he has deliberately chosen to distort the facts, just to try and score some political points”.
“I had fully expected and I was prepared for the SDP to do this, but I had expected better of Professor Tambyah. He claims the MTF is distracted. But it seems that he is the one who is doing the politicking and undermining the work of everyone on the frontline,” he added.
During Friday's forum, Dr Tambyah, who was recently elected as president of the US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases (ISID), praised Singapore's initial handling of the pandemic in January and February.
READ: GE2020: Focus on public health could have been lost in March amid talk of early election, suggests SDP's Paul Tambyah
In February, when there was a cluster of COVID-19 cases involving Bangladeshi workers at the Seletar Aerospace Heights construction site, he said this was "handled really well", but that employers started thinking "hey my workers are living in the same dormitory maybe you should bring them for testing".
"And then what happened was the Ministry of Manpower issued a statement telling the employers they were not allowed to bring their workers for testing, and if they brought their workers for testing, they would lose their work pass privileges," said Dr Tambyah.
On Sunday, Mr Wong said: “On the specific issue of the advisory by MOM, Professor Tambyah has got his facts wrong.”
“It was not MOM that unilaterally issued that advisory. It was the doctors and medical experts that had requested the MOM to put out that advisory to their employers,” he said.
"At that time, many employers were asking their workers to go to the A&E departments in hospitals to be tested, in order to be certified free from the virus and fit for work," Mr Wong said.
“It was doctors who could not issue such a memo to the employers and that's why the doctors and medical experts have asked MOM to put out an advisory to clarify the matter with employers."
Mr Wong, who is a People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, added that “ultimately, Singaporeans will see and judge what we have done”.
“We have been fully engaged in this fight against COVID-19 continuously for the past six months, and that's how we have kept our infection rates low in the community, protected the lives of Singaporeans, especially our vulnerable groups,” he said.
“We have mounted a major operation in the dormitories to test and clear all the workers and we are more than halfway through.”
In response to a question on how much he is on the ground during the campaigning period for the General Election, Mr Wong said the work of the multi-ministry task force continues even during campaigning.
This involves having meetings, continuing to monitor reports every day, looking at daily updates, as well as working with teams comprising public health experts and officials on the ground to oversee the work that is required to control the infection, he added.
“That work has not stopped, that work continues, right through. even now. So, whatever spare time on top of that work, that's where I come in to the ground to meet my residents. That's the situation,” Mr Wong said, adding that the work was “important because we do not want to compromise at all”.
In response to CNA's queries, Dr Tambyah said later that he has "the greatest respect" for healthcare workers.
“I have the greatest respect for the doctors, nurses and allied health professionals who have helped keep Singapore safe and our age standardized mortality rate from COVID disease comparable to some of the most medically advanced countries in the world,” he said.
Dr Tambyah also said he has "no doubt" that public health professionals will put together "a comprehensive review of Singapore’s public health response to the virus” after the Jul 10 General Election is over.
"I would like to thank Minister Lawrence Wong for his reassurance that he is not going to campaign in Marsiling Yew Tee but rather concentrate on the rising number of unlinked and local community cases of COVID 19 outside the dormitories as well as the potential environmental cluster in Tampines," he added.
ELECTIONS NOT TO BLAME FOR RISE IN CASES: LAWRENCE WONG
Speaking to reporters on Sunday morning, Mr Wong said the recent rise in community COVID-19 cases can be attributed to the resumption of activities in Phase 2 of Singapore's reopening, regardless of the election.
He was responding to a question on the increase in cases.
“If we look at all countries around the world that exited from the lock downs, because of the resumption of activities, election or not, right, it's really because of the relaxation of the very strict movement control measures, and when activities resumed, one must expect the number of cases to go up,” he said.
“We knew this would happen in Singapore too. We had anticipated this, and we had said this, from the very start.”
Mr Wong acknowledged that parties could improve safe distancing measures on the ground, noting that some of their practices were “uneven”.
“I’m sure where there are lapses, the Elections Department has its people, be it safe distancing ambassadors or enforcement officers there, to quickly go in, remind all the relevant parties, be it candidates, activists or helpers, what the necessary measures are (so) the elections can be conducted safely,” he said.
But Mr Wong disagreed with suggestions that this meant the elections should not have been held in the first place, pointing out that the uneven practices “applied across the board”.
“It's not just about candidates. We do know that there are food and beverage operators that are not doing as much as they can,” he said.
“We do know that there are places where there are crowds, where people do gather. So it's not about elections. Whether or not in Phase 2 the rules are complied with to the fullest extent – I think that's something that we are concerned about.”
Mr Wong said the Government continues to remind every Singaporean to play their part to fight COVID-19 together, even as safe distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers walk the ground.
“So this is not an issue of elections. Whether or not you have elections, we will be dealing with the pandemic for a long time. Like as we have said it's not a matter of months, it could be more than a year,” he added.
“This whole issue of learning to live with COVID-19, learning to comply with safe distancing measures, embracing this as a habit, really has to be integral to our lifestyles and all of us have to do more.”