SINGAPORE: With the emergence of several new COVID-19 clusters in the community, the Government is doing everything it can to prevent them from spreading, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (May 1).
The new clusters are emerging after a long period of very few community cases, with some being “quite big and worrying”, Mr Lee noted in his May Day Rally speech.
The Government will have to be agile and decisive in its response, tighten measures "promptly" when necessary to clamp down on the spread so as to avoid going into a second “circuit breaker”.
Over the past week, Singapore has seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the community, including its first hospital cluster at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. This cluster is also currently the country's largest with 13 cases.
READ: COVID-19: Staff placed on leave of absence, 4 wards locked down as Tan Tock Seng Hospital moves to contain cluster
Mr Lee urged Singaporeans to work with the Government and “not let down our guard”.
“It is not time to relax yet. This is a marathon. Let’s keep jogging. Let’s keep ourselves safe,” he said.
“Don't make the mistake which other countries have done - celebrate too early, relax too fast, let your guard down (and) cause another wave to come. Very often worse than the first and more nasty drastic measures become necessary.
“If we have to do another lockdown like last year’s circuit breaker, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery,” he added. “Let’s not make it happen.”
Mr Lee noted that Singapore’s economic outlook has now “brightened considerably”, with the global recession being less protracted than initially feared.
Given the external trends such as a strong recovery anticipated in the United States, there is “a very good chance” for the economy to see growth of “6 per cent or more this year", he added.
“EMERGENCY LEGISLATION” FOR CONSTRUCTION SECTOR
Mr Lee said the efforts and sacrifices of many workers have been a reason why the country managed to keep the pandemic under control so far.
For instance, healthcare workers have been on the frontline, testing, vaccinating and treating patients.
Aviation workers, whose livelihoods were severely impacted, also joined the frontline by becoming patient care ambassadors, contact tracers and safe distancing ambassadors.
Workers in the construction sector have also experienced COVID-19 at “ground zero”, said Mr Lee.
While the outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories has been put out, said Mr Lee, safe management measures that remain necessary have burdened the industry. Coupled with a manpower crunch, these have led to projects being delayed and costs going up.
In addition, the recent ban on travellers from India has worsened the situation for the industry. Singapore on Apr 24 stopped allowing entry to all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to India within the last 14 days.
As such, the Government is working on “emergency legislation to address this severe disruption and to share the burden more fairly between the different parties”, namely the contractors, developers and buyers.
“We will introduce the legislation, I hope, in the next sitting of Parliament,” said Mr Lee.
Mr Lee also noted that the pandemic has impacted workers from other sectors, which is why the Government has provided reliefs and grants to help businesses tide through the recession. But as the economy recovers, it will have to recalibrate support to a more sustainable level.
Moving forward, Singapore must “find a way to fully recover” and “build new muscles” for life after the COVID-19 pandemic.
On this, Mr Lee said trends are already under way and the country will have to seize these emerging opportunities, namely in the form of digitalisation, automation and sustainability.
NEW NTUC FOUNDATION
Earlier at the May Day Rally, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng announced the set-up of a NTUC Foundation, which will have an initial funding of S$250 million.
These funds will be invested to provide NTUC's financial assistance schemes and grants with "a steady income flow", he said.
Currently, NTUC supports its vulnerable members through its U Care initiatives in the form of financial assistance and grants, which are funded by donors such as the Singapore Labour Foundation, NTUC Social Enterprises, affiliated unions, private sector corporations and individuals.
But since the pandemic hit, some donors have faced difficulties in contributing while the needs of some of its members have increased, said Mr Ng.
“With a steady source of income, we will have the flexibility to do more in co-creating opportunities and support to benefit, especially our lower-wage workers," he said.
The new foundation, which was incorporated on Apr 27, will also better enable NTUC to diversify the type of support provided and respond to the changing needs of its members through economic ups and downs, said NTUC in a separate press release.
READ: MAS sees continued ‘steady’ recovery in labour market, resident unemployment rate to fall further
Welcoming the new initiative by NTUC, Mr Lee said protecting vulnerable people in the society is also a key priority of the Government.
He pointed to how the Government has been working with tripartite partners to extend the progressive wage model to more sectors, like food services and retail.
“This is not just a theoretical exercise, but a practical effective strategy to improve the lives of more lower-wage workers, and we plan to more than double the number of workers covered under the progressive wage model over the next few years,” he said.
Other plans to support lower-income workers are also in the works and Mr Lee added that he intends to speak about them at the National Day Rally in a few months’ time.
STRONG LABOUR MOVEMENT NEEDED
In his speech, Mr Lee also paid tribute to the labour movement for their work over past crises, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, and during the COVID-19 pandemic where NTUC’s dedication to its mission “has truly come to the fore”.
“You protect workers in every way when retrenchments are unavoidable, for example in the aviation industry or in banking. The unions ensured that retrenchments were carried out fairly and responsibly,” he said.
Alongside other efforts to help affected workers and businesses, employment figures have since inched back up, while the unemployment rate has fallen after an initial increase, he added.
“So today on May Day, I'd like to say a very big thank you to all our brothers and sisters for your tireless efforts over the past year, for your never-say-die spirit which has helped us come through COVID-19 together,” Mr Lee told 200 labour movement leaders and tripartite partners who attended the May Day Rally at Downtown East, as well as others who tuned in via an online livestream.
Moving forward amid an uncertain world, Singapore must keep its labour movement strong while strengthening bonds with a pro-labour Government.
Noting that the NTUC is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Mr Lee said: “On your 60th birthday, I not only wish you happy birthday but I ask you to remain steadfast in NTUC’s mission to strengthen your close partnership with the Government, and to improve the lives of Singapore workers.
“Whatever storms come our way and we can be sure, this is not the last one, let's make sure Singapore continues to grow and to prosper, united and strong for many years to come.”