In full: Lawrence Wong's ministerial statement on Singapore's response to novel coronavirus

In full: Lawrence Wong's ministerial statement on Singapore's response to novel coronavirus

People wearing mask at Orchard Road Singapore Feb 3 (34)
People were seen wearing masks at Orchard Road, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (Feb 3) delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament on how the Government has put in place "multiple lines of defence" against the novel coronavirus in Singapore. 

Mr Wong, who also co-chairs a multi-ministry taskforce fighting the spread of the virus, added that Singapore needs its citizens to "play their part" in tackling the outbreak.

This is what he said in full: 

Mr Speaker, sir, the Minister for Health has spoken about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (or nCoV in short) situation, and explained how we have prepared for this since SARS, as well as the public health measures that we have taken so far. 

I will now elaborate on the other aspects of the work of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce.

The Taskforce was formed just about two weeks ago, and we have been meeting almost daily since then to deal with a very fast moving and constantly changing situation. nCoV is a new virus, and medical experts everywhere are rushing to understand more about how it spreads, how severe it is, and how it can be treated.

READ: Singapore supportive of China, confident it can deal with Wuhan coronavirus: Shanmugam

We constantly update our risk assessments based on the latest information and expert advice. We also look ahead to anticipate as best as we can how the situation will evolve, and prepare for the possibility that things can worsen. 

That’s why over the past week alone, we’ve had to adjust and update our measures several times. 

We owe it to every Singaporean to do our very best to protect all of us from this virus. So in all that we do, the overall health and wellbeing of Singaporeans has been and will be our top priority.

BORDER CONTROLS

As Minister Gan highlighted earlier, the measures we put in place are part of a broader system with multiple lines of defence. 

Our first line of defence against an infectious disease that occurs outside of Singapore is to put in place controls at the border to limit the spread of the virus and the number of imported cases here.

Infectious diseases do not respect borders. The world is more connected than before, with more people flying around and travelling than ever. 

We have to be extra vigilant on this front because Singapore is an international travel hub, with more than 68 million people using our airport last year. A virus that comes through our airport will not only impact Singapore. It can also easily spread through us to other countries in the region.

People wearing protective face mask at Orchard Road
People are seen wearing a protective face mask at Orchard Road, Singapore on Jan 28. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

So to protect against such an infectious disease outbreak when it happens outside of Singapore, we have a series of drawer plans and measures at the border. 

They range from the screening of in-bound travellers, to placing high-risk travellers into quarantine, as well as restricting travel for those who have been recently at highrisk countries. 

Depending on the nature of the outbreak, we will assess the risks and put in place the appropriate measures.

READ: Wuhan coronavirus: Licence fees waived for hotels, travel agents and tour guides, cleaning costs subsidised

This is the approach the Taskforce has taken in dealing with this virus. We first implemented temperature screening at Changi Airport for flights from Wuhan, and then we expanded the screening to all flights from China; and also to our land and sea checkpoints. 

As an additional precaution, and because not all who are infected will show symptoms, we deployed healthcare teams at the aerobridge for all incoming flights from China to identify and pull aside passengers who look unwell.

At the same time, it helped that China itself had moved swiftly to impose restrictions on its own outbound travellers. It cancelled outbound tour groups. All of these measures helped to reduce the flow of people from China to Singapore. 

Typically, there will be about 14,000 PRC travellers flying in from China to Singapore every day. After the Chinese imposed outbound restrictions on 23 January, this number came down sharply by more than 80 per cent – just through the Chinese measures alone.

Despite these measures, we recognised that there was still a flow of travellers coming in from China on a regular basis. 

We monitored this flow carefully and considered what additional actions were needed based on the evidence and risks. Early last week, when we saw the sharply accelerating trend of infection among the population of Chinese nationals from Hubei province, we knew we had to move. 

That’s why on Jan 28, we decided to disallow all new visitors with recent travel history in Hubei.

Changi Airport begins screening travellers from Wuhan after pneumonia outbreak
Health advisory posters for all travellers have also been put up at Changi Airport. (Photo: Khaw Boon Wan/Facebook)

But shortly after that, the situation changed again. While the majority of confirmed cases in China were still linked to Hubei province, it was evident that the virus had spread to every region of mainland China, and there was a high risk of widespread community transmission in other parts of China.

So on Jan 31, we decided to take the additional precaution of disallowing all new visitors with recent travel history in the rest of mainland China.

As part of these travel restrictions, ICA is no longer issuing new visas to those with PRC passports, and suspending all such visas. That is because the vast majority of such travellers coming in for short visits would have been in China recently. 

But if there are PRC passport holders who have not been in China in the past 14 days, then ICA will be prepared to issue them a short-term visitor pass or to extend their short-term pass.

That’s why I had emphasised earlier that the travel restrictions are not tied to nationality, but are meant to restrict all travellers with recent travel history in China. 

This is necessary to reduce the flow of people coming from the source of the virus outbreak, and to limit the number of imported cases coming into Singapore. That is our first line of defence at the border.

READ: Wuhan virus outbreak - At a glance

DETECT AND ISOLATE

Beyond border controls, our second line of defence is to identify and isolate the people with the virus, as well as all of the close contacts of the infected persons. 

We have a well-established contact tracing procedure, which we put in place during SARS, and have continued to fine-tune through emergency exercises, and through experiences dealing with previous outbreaks like MERS and H1N1.

As of 8am today, we have 18 confirmed cases of the virus, all with recent travel history in Hubei. 16 are PRC nationals, mostly here on short-term passes.

The other 2 are Singaporeans, who were among the 92 who came back recently from Wuhan after the city was locked down. 

People wearing protective face mask at Orchard Road
A woman is seen wearing a face mask at Orchard Road, Singapore on Jan 28, 2020. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Beyond the confirmed cases, we have tested a broader group of 240 suspect cases, all of whom are negative. There are another 43 suspect cases, for which the test results are pending.

READ: Wuhan virus in Singapore: What we know about the confirmed cases

All of the outstanding suspect cases have been isolated; the close contacts of the confirmed cases are also now on quarantine. In addition, we have been contacting the recent travellers from Hubei who are presently in Singapore, and putting those of higher risk on quarantine.

As of last night, there are 524 persons under quarantine – 222 are in Government Quarantine Facilities (GQF), and 302 are serving quarantine at home. Persons under Quarantine are required to stay in their designated location at all times during the quarantine period. They cannot physically interact with others living in the same premise.

For each case, we will assess whether to quarantine the person at the GQFs or to do so at the person’s home. 

In cases where the home is found to be suitable by MOH, then the home quarantine would apply. 

We will use video calls, phone calls and regular spot checks to ensure that they remain in their assigned quarantine location. 

These are protocols that we have all worked out through SARS and fine-tuned over the years. 

Persons who do not have a suitable residence for quarantine will then be housed in a GQF. There are severe penalties for non-compliance of the Quarantine Order, including fines or jail.

READ: Commentary: As a parent, I worry about my kids and the Wuhan coronavirus situation. So I’m taking action

Soldiers packing face masks at SAFTI MI (1)
Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel packs face mask for distribution to the public at SAFTI Military Institute in Jurong on Jan 31. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Besides quarantine for close contacts and high-risk groups, we have also taken precautionary measures for recent travellers from other parts of mainland China, outside of Hubei. 

Our assessment is that they are of lower risk compared to those who were recently in Hubei. 

For all such returning residents and long-term pass holders, we ask them to take a 14-day Leave of Absence (LOA) from the date of their return.

This is one way to reduce their exposure when they are back, and thus reduce the risk of community spread in Singapore.

Those on LOA are expected to remain in their residence as much as possible, minimise visitors, and maintain a record of persons they come into close contact with.

They also need to minimise time spent in public places and contact with others, monitor their health and temperature daily, and avoid crowded places or social gatherings. 

We have put out guidelines on what an LOA means, just to ensure that anyone who is on LOA knows what they are expected to do. 

They may resume normal duties or activities only after they have served their LOA, if they remain well.

People stocking up on mask, wuhan virus outbreak, singapore jan 29
People queueing at a medical supply store in Singapore on Jan 29 to purchase face masks. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

We have put in place measures like the Quarantine Orders and Leave of Absence to protect Singaporeans from the spread of the virus. Singaporeans must also do their part to cooperate. 

Some residents, upon learning that there is a person under home quarantine or LOA in the same apartment block, have asked that this person be moved elsewhere. We’ve also heard feedback of landlords stigmatising tenants based on their nationality, or worse, evicting PRC tenants who are taking their Leave of Absence.

I can appreciate that Singaporeans are very concerned about the wellbeing of themselves and their family members. 

But if landlords start turning tenants away, then our overall containment efforts will be much harder and we end up endangering ourselves and others. 

The outcome will be completely counterproductive. We should not condone such irresponsible actions that will end up putting Singapore and Singaporeans at greater risk.

In such difficult times, we should not let our fears overwhelm us and cause us to overreact. Instead let us support each other and look out for one another, so that we can all get through this together.

COMMUNITY AND INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY

This brings me to the third line of defence on community and individual responsibility.

The Government will do everything we can in this fight against the virus. Many of our officials are going beyond their usual duties to focus on this challenge. 

They include our healthcare and medical personnel at the frontline; ICA officers manning the checkpoints; the Police and SCDF officers and auxiliary police screening incoming travellers, and safeguarding persons under quarantine; as well as the CAAS and MPA officers at airport and cruise terminals; and many, many more. 

The whole-of-Government officials are going all out to tackle this.

Singapore screening
Health officers screen arriving passengers from China with thermal scanners at Changi Airport in Singapore as authorities increased measure against coronavirus. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP)

But all that is not enough. We need every Singaporean to play their part – to take all necessary precautions, and to exercise individual and collective responsibility. For example, employers can help by ensuring their employees who have just returned from China stay at home under LOA. 

If anyone in the office is sick, employers should immediately ask them to see a doctor, and stay at home to recover.

We also have a responsibility, in this time of heightened alert, not to spread unverified information or false news which can cause needless panic and fear. 

Unfortunately, in recent times, there have been various online posts and articles containing falsehoods. 

For example that we have run out of masks, that someone in Singapore has died from the virus, and that Woodlands MRT station was shut for disinfection. These are all false – fake news. Fortunately, we now have POFMA to deal with these fake news. 

The Government has used POFMA to correct them, clarify the facts swiftly, and we will continue to do so to avoid unnecessary panic and anxiety.

Even as we address false information, we have stepped up our efforts to provide everyone with timely and accurate information. We try to reach all segments of society through various platforms including broadcast media, display panels in HDB estates, Government websites and social media. 

We have been using Gov.sg WhatsApp to provide timely updates to Singaporeans in all our official languages. To date, more than 300,000 have signed up for the service. I encourage anyone who has not done so to subscribe and get the latest verified information and advisories.

Tourists in masks at Jewel (2)
People are seen wearing protective face masks at Jewel Changi Airport (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

As the situation continues to evolve, we ask Singaporeans to continue turning to official or credible sources for accurate and up-to-date information. We ask Singaporeans to be discerning, and share only verified information. 

Together, we can help prevent misinformation and falsehoods from sowing fear and causing panic in our society.

At the individual level, it is also essential that all of us continue to uphold good personal hygiene, as emphasised by Minister Gan just now. 

Wash our hands regularly with soap, do not touch our face with our hands; cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze. 

If you have flu-like symptoms, avoid public places, and wear a mask on your way to the clinic, so that you do not risk infecting others. We have said these repeatedly, but I think we should all continue to emphasise these points to get the message across.

STOCKPILE OF SUPPLIES

This brings me to the topic of face masks. To prepare for any emergency, stockpiles of essential items are critical. Over the years, and learning from the experience of SARS and other crises, we have built up a stockpile of surgical and N95 masks.

But no stockpile is sufficient if we do not use the supplies judiciously. In the nine days up to end of January, the Government released more than 5 million masks from our stockpiles to the retailers. 

All were snapped up in a matter of hours. But still there were still people who were not able to get access to a mask.

At the same time, with the virus spreading to countries all over the world, there is now a global scramble for masks. 

Producers around the world are struggling to keep pace with the demand. Some places like Taiwan have even banned the export of masks. 

People wears mask at Bugis Street Singapore Feb 3 (2)
Two women wearing masks cross the street at Bugis, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

We have existing contracts from various producers to replenish our stockpile. But in light of the current situation, we have to seriously consider the risks of our supply lines being disrupted.

Because of the rapid consumption rate that we had seen earlier and the potential threat to our supply lines, we decided to change the method of distribution of masks from our national stockpile. 

And that’s why firstly, we have slowed down the supply of masks to retailers, and prioritised the masks for essential services, namely our frontline healthcare workers. 

Secondly, for the general public, we decided to release masks directly from the stockpile to households, so that every family will have access to a mask should someone in the family fall sick and need to use one to see a doctor.

The nationwide distribution of the masks was a major exercise in its own right. We mobilised the SAF and PA for this task and they all did a sterling job. 

Within a very short turnaround time, the SAF had completed the packing of over 5 million masks, and delivered them to our collection points. Our PA staff and grassroots organisations then took to set up the collection centres at CCs and RC centres, and to man the collection counters. 

Even GovTech chipped in and came up with a “maskgowhere” website, where you can just key in your postal code to get information on where and when to collect the masks. The collection of masks started on 1 Feb, and to date more than 200,000 packs, (or 15 per cent of the total) have been collected. 

I would like to record my thanks to the SAF, PA and all who have been involved in the smooth and speedy execution of this ongoing exercise.


Let me reiterate once again that there are sufficient supplies of masks in Singapore, as long as they are used responsibly. So let us all do our part to ensure the sustainability of our mask stockpile, so that our frontline healthcare workers will have the necessary supplies to carry out their work.

HELP FOR AFFECTED SECTORS AND INDIVIDUALS

It has been slightly over a month since the virus outbreak in China and businesses here in Singapore are already feeling the impact. 

Depending on how the situation evolves, the impact to the economy can further broaden and intensify. The government will therefore extend support and help for our companies and workers.

We already provide a quarantine allowance to Singapore-based businesses to cover their employees who are quarantined, and to self-employed Singaporeans/PRs who are in quarantine. 

MOM and NTUC will also work closely with employers to support any affected workers and to protect their livelihoods. In addition, MSF is working with the community and grassroots organisations to reach out to Singaporeans and PRs under quarantine. 

We will provide ComCare financial assistance and social support to those in need to tide through this difficult period.

People wearing mask at Orchard Road Singapore Feb 3 (44)
A man holds a mask at Orchard Road, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Finally, as DPM Heng said on Saturday, the Government will provide targeted support to the sectors that have been more directly impacted – including tourism and transport, and related industries and firms.

In fact the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has already announced the first set of measures for this sector including the waiver of license fees for hotels, travel agents and tour guides. 

Besides these specific sectors, we recognise that there will be knock-on impacts on related industries in the event of a broad-based slowdown. 

So we are working out a package of measures to help viable companies stay afloat and to help workers stay in their jobs. This package of measures will be announced during the Budget.

STANDING UNITED

As I said at the start, we need all Singaporeans to stand united in this fight against the virus. In a situation like this, fear is sometimes as great a threat to us as the disease itself. We must not allow such fear to paralyse our society. 

We must never allow our prejudices and our fears to pull apart our society or foster greater division or suspicions. 

As we did in SARS and other previous challenges over the years, let us find strength and confidence in one another – the strength to carry on with our lives, the strength to support each other and to defeat this virus together.

I cited some examples of irresponsible behaviours earlier by landlords chasing out tenants on LOAs. 

Unfortunately, there are other examples too – people hoarding and profiteering from the sale of masks; people spreading falsehoods online – recently a Whatsapp message has been going around listing places to avoid, completely ignoring the fact that any place exposed to a confirmed case will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, under supervision by NEA. 

But still, a list of places to avoid was spread, creating fear and a perception that people should avoid these places. 

Anti PRC sentiment has also emerged amongst some groups. Online, you can see posts directed against PRC nationals. 

On the ground, you hear reports of discrimination against PRC nationals, whether its landlords denying them their tenancies, or service providers denying them service. 

Such actions are not helpful, and they have no place in our society. We are bigger than this in Singapore. And, I hope all of us in this House, regardless of political party, will stand together and do our part to confront and condemn such prejudice and discrimination wherever they exist.

But I’m glad these behaviours are still in the minority, they are not representative of the vast majority of Singaporeans. 

There are many more out there who have been showing us the best of Singapore at work. They are quietly helping our fellow citizens in their own ways. 

For example, at a recent house visit, I met a resident and asked him if he had collected his masks, and he replied that he did not need them, and he asked for his package to be given to others who are in greater need. And I am sure many members here would have encountered similar residents giving you such feedback. 

Over the weekend too, we have seen residents who have spontaneously stepped forward, volunteering by themselves or even with their children alongside them, to man the masks collection points as well as to distribute the masks to the homes of their more vulnerable neighbours, especially those with mobility issues.

Many Singaporeans are also doing their part to support those who are affected through many selfless acts. In NUS and NTU, the students are helping their friends on Leave of Absence, by delivering food three times a day to them. 

They are helping to pack and deliver welfare packs, including items like snacks and hot drinks. At NUS, I understand that students are even organising a 24-hour e-gaming tournament to keep the students on LOA occupied.

We see shining examples of selfless acts by Singaporeans in the Scoot pilots and crew of TR121 who volunteered to fly the 92 Singaporeans from Wuhan despite the risks to themselves. Two MFA officials volunteered for this assignment, despite the risks.

Most of all, we see Singaporeans from all walks of life carrying on with their lives with courage and calmness, in every sector. 

Our friends from the media are busy covering the news; I’m seeing them almost every day these days – and you see them busy on the ground; correspondents still in China covering the news, providing us with up-to-date information so that we are familiar with the facts and latest developments. 

Our front-line workers, those in our healthcare institutions, our healthcare workers, our workers at our checkpoints and our airports, our transport workers – all carrying on with their lives quietly, doing whatever they can to fight this virus. 

So I want to thank everyone for showing that Singaporeans can rise to this occasion, and overcoming this challenging situation together.

This is the Singapore Spirit which will enable us to prevail against the virus. 

At this point, no one can tell for sure how the situation will develop, or how long this will last. But I am confident that we will succeed in this fight, if we stand united – as an effective Government, a cohesive people, and a resolute nation.

Mr Speaker, we can and will overcome this challenge together.

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