MPs raise concerns over possible community spread of novel coronavirus and the economic impact on Singapore
SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) on Monday (Feb 3) lauded the Government's response to the novel coronavirus situation in Singapore, although some expressed their concerns about the possible community spread of the virus, the impact on Singapore’s economy and the availability of healthcare resources.
In their ministerial statements, Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong stressed that every Singaporean will need to play their part to contain any possible outbreak.
The two ministers, who co-chair the multi-ministerial task force formed in response to the virus outbreak, told Parliament that Singapore is preparing for various scenarios of how the global outbreak could evolve and acknowledged a possible community spread of the virus in Singapore.
READ: Singapore preparing various contingencies as outbreak of novel coronavirus evolves: Gan Kim Yong
“Despite our best efforts, this is a possibility that we must be ready for,” said Mr Gan, adding that quick detection and limiting further spread will be key to managing this.
“If the infected Singaporean wears a mask to protect others, and promptly sees a doctor and gets triaged for testing, the risk of further spread could be greatly reduced. Even if there is spread, quick action will help to limit its extent."
Once tested positive, the Government can also start tracing close contacts, which will help to reduce further spread of the coronavirus, said Mr Gan.
“If the community spread becomes very extensive, we will need to consider measures to reduce human to human interactions, such as cancelling mass gatherings, suspending schools, paring down non-essential care services and introducing further infection control and monitoring measures, to slow the spread,” said the minister.
About 20 MPs raised questions in response to the ministerial statements. MPs, including Mr Alex Yam and Ms Denise Phua, thanked the ministers for the updates, while Professor Fatimah Lateef applauded the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Health for their “top notch” work.
CONCERNS ABOUT COMMUNITY SPREAD
Several MPs noted that there were concerns among Singaporeans about being infected by the coronavirus.
MPs Lily Neo and Prof Fatimah raised questions about individuals who visit or are sent by employers to hospitals to be assessed if they are virus-free.
In an example raised by Prof Fatimah, air-con repairmen who had visited a suspected case's room were sent to the emergency department of a tertiary hospital to be assessed, even though they were asymptomatic.
She said more public education was needed to prevent similar situations so as not to "overload the hospitals".
When asked about employees who might "seek certification" on being virus-free so they can go back to work, Mr Gan stressed that there was no such certification.
“We test the patient based on his viral load, and there is an incubation period during which the patient may have very low or zero viral load," the health minister said.
“But at the same time, because (of the) incubation period, the virus may emerge later on and therefore, at any point in time when we test the person, when it is negative, it doesn’t mean that he is virus-free.”
Mr Gan also encouraged employers not to send their workers to hospitals for such tests or certifications.
“Please don’t go to the hospital to ask for a blood test in order to get a certificate that you are free from coronavirus. it’s just not possible for such certificates, and it just loads the hospitals unnecessarily,” he added.
NO WORRIES LIVING NEXT TO QUARANTINE FACILITY
Ms Phua said residents living near government quarantine facilities have expressed concerns about being near people who were asked to stay in such centres.
Mr Wong stressed that there is "no need to fear" living close to a government quarantine facility, or having someone subject to home quarantine within the same apartment block.
“We have to be mindful that anyone who is in quarantine is not an infected person,” he added.
There are also strict protocols and procedures that those who are under quarantine have to follow, such as ensuring they remain within the place of quarantine. There will be checks, including phone calls, video calls and spot checks, said Mr Wong.
The minister noted that there have been several messages sent on Whatsapp listing places to avoid because an infected person might have been to those places.
“Whenever there is a confirmed case, there is a thorough cleaning and disinfection process to make sure that the place is entirely clean and disinfected, with NEA (National Environment Agency) supervisors there,” Mr Wong added.
LEAVE OF ABSENCE
The announcement on Sunday that 30,000 work pass holders of Chinese nationality are currently overseas and will have to take leave of absence from their jobs when they return has also caused some anxiety to Singaporeans as the bulk of them live in HDB flats, said MP Lee Bee Wah.
She also asked if there will be any way to ensure that those on leave of absence will comply with the conditions.
The Manpower Ministry had said on Sunday that the number is less than 1 per cent of Singapore's workforce, but their absence will affect some sectors more than others.
Mr Wong clarified that the 30,000 work permit holders are still in China and have not returned to Singapore. “Not all of them live in our housing estates,” he added.
The ministries are working directly with employers to identify them, which sectors they work in and where they stay, he said.
“That exercise is underway now, so that we can be ready when these workers return - be ready to engage employers, be ready to engage their landlords," he added.
“Some of them are living in dorms, be ready to ensure that dorms are properly fitted out, to have these workers living in more isolated areas without interaction and contamination with their fellow workers.”
READ: Wuhan virus to hit Singapore’s tourism sector, but too soon to assess impact on overall economy: Experts
IMPACT ON THE ECONOMY
Several MPs asked about the virus’ impact on the economy and whether the Government would introduce measures to help businesses and workers cope with the impact of self-isolation.
In response to Mr Yam’s question on the scale of the coronavirus’ effect on the economy, Mr Wong said that Singapore is only “seeing the initial brunt” now.
As the situation escalates, “impact will not only be for the sectors that are directly impacted like trade, transport and tourism, but there will be knock-on impacts”, he said.
READ: Wuhan coronavirus: Licence fees waived for hotels, travel agents and tour guides, cleaning costs subsidised
“We are studying this very carefully to develop a series of measures and a strong package in the Budget to help companies and workers. In the interim, wherever we can, we will develop and we will quickly roll out initiatives to help firms without having to wait for the Budget,” he said.
Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked if the Government would encourage employers to be generous with paid medical and family leave for those who need to self-isolate or to look after family members.
“I am not sure right now that paid leave is actually mandated for self-isolation … and we wouldn’t want employers to ask employees to take their own annual leave or no pay leave in such cases,” he said.
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said that employers can exercise flexibility when it comes to employees not on mandated leave of absence.
Assoc Prof Theseira and Mr Ang Hin Kee also asked how the Government would support self-employed persons placed on a leave of absence.
Mr Wong and Mrs Teo said that the Government was “mindful” of the feedback, and it was looking at measures to support and help self-employed persons.
On Jan 28, Mr Wong announced that all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) who are quarantined will receive S$100 a day. If employed, the employer will receive the allowance. If self-employed, the individual will receive the money.
HEALTHCARE WORKERS AND RESOURCES
Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar asked if there are enough healthcare workers in the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) and hospitals to manage patients and whether these workers have sufficient rest and support. She also asked if the Government would activate volunteer healthcare workers.
“There is a heightened need for manpower because of the intensity that we are going through - inspection of, testing the cases, quarantining them and managing them … therefore we have been working with our clusters to ensure that they have sufficient manpower, and to make sure that their schedules are also properly looked at,” said Mr Gan.
He added that he reminded hospital managers to plan for the long term and to ensure that doctors and healthcare workers get sufficient rest.
“It is not a dash to the end point, because we need to be prepared that this may take months,” he said.
He said he would consider recalling volunteers and those on leave.
READ: 'I saw Singapore's first SARS case; I’m still alive and standing': At the frontline of the Wuhan coronavirus
MP Melvin Yong asked Mr Gan if there were any measures to protect frontline medical staff looking after infected patients, in light of reports that medical workers in China have been infected with the coronavirus.
Mr Gan noted that healthcare workers often get infected at the initial stages of the outbreak as they are unfamiliar with the virus and may not know that it is infectious.
But Singapore has gone through “painful lessons” during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak and other disease outbreaks, and healthcare institutions now exercise "extra caution" to deal with infected patients, he said.
These include NCID’s protocols on donning protective gear and general practitioners’ practice of giving potential patients masks to wear.
The Government has also “ramped up” ambulance services to respond to the outbreak, said Mr Gan, responding to a question by Dr Neo on whether there is a shortage of ambulance services.
"In the initial first few days there were some organisation difficulties among the service operators, and we have sat down with them discussed with them and manage the logistics better now," Mr Gan said.
"I think that sometimes when there is a peak, it may take a while, a few minutes, and our part we try to respond as soon as possible."
He added that there is a hotline for doctors if they encounter any problems.
CURE AND VACCINE
NMP Mohamad Irshad asked if a cure might be developed for the virus, while Mr Christopher de Souza asked about Singapore’s global role in finding solutions to the crisis.
Mr Gan said: “Currently, there is no curative treatment … I think vaccines and curative treatment are being looked into, but I think it will take time to develop the method, and to also test the treatment to make sure that it is effect and safe for patients.”
He added that Singapore’s research institutions have been collaborating with other institutions around the world to better understand the virus and to develop a vaccine.
The World Health Organization and international organisations have provided a platform to share knowledge and information, he said.
MASKS AVAILABILITY AND PROFITEERING
Following the announcement on Thursday that each Singapore household will be given four surgical face masks amid worries of low mask stocks, Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera asked for an update on profiteers selling masks at high prices, and whether the government would consider applying price controls under the Price Control Act.
He also asked why Singaporeans were invited to collect the masks, instead of the masks being mailed to them.
Adding that letters of demand have already been sent to e-commerce platforms like Lazada and Carousell, Mr Wong said: “We will not rule out any option at this stage. The price controller pursuing, investigating, getting more information, and if need be, more action can be taken.
“But as of now, looking at the prices on some of these, platform providers have cooperated. I heard recently that some of them have even taken out or removed some of these listings with very exorbitant prices.”
He also said that distributing masks by post could result in wastage, as some households might not need the masks.
The minister noted that distribution of the masks is “proceeding in a very orderly fashion” with no queues or large crowds.
NMP Irene Quay asked the Health Minister whether there will be measures in place to ensure the public is fitted with the right model of N95 masks, if they are required.
“In the event of widespread community transmission, wearing N95 masks is probably not the solution,” responded Mr Gan, adding that the masks are generally used by healthcare professionals.
“We are most likely going to introduce social distancing, manage crowd gathering, minimising human-to-human interaction, rather than introduce N95 masks for general use.
“I think to teach each of them how to wear N95 masks to be as effective as in the healthcare environment is quite difficult, and you may end up giving them a false sense of security, and as a result we end up with more infections, which is counter productive,” he said.