Ministerial Statement by Minister Lawrence Wong on Update on Whole-of-Government Response to COVID-19
Mar 25, 2020
Mr Speaker, Sir, the Minister for Health has given an update on the global and local situation, and explained the public health measures that we have taken so far, as well as how we are managing our healthcare capacity. Let me now elaborate on the other aspects of the work of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce.
As Minister Gan mentioned just now, we experienced an initial wave of imported cases from China, which resulted in some local transmission and local clusters. Now we are facing a second and much bigger wave of imported cases from the rest of the world, especially from America and Europe. It reflects how quickly the virus is spreading around the world, outside of China. The number of cases is doubling every 4-6 days. There are more cases outside China than in China now. We are not alone in facing this new wave of imported cases. Many places in Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan – are in a similar situation. That is why we have been rapidly adjusting and updating our measures to respond to this new challenge.
Tighter Border Controls
We have progressively tightened our border controls and travel restrictions, based on the rapidly changing situation. We started with restrictions, as Members would recall, for travellers from China; we extended the restrictions to other epidemic centres – initially to the Republic of Korea, Italy, Iran, then France, Germany, Spain; later UK, Switzerland, Japan and the ASEAN countries. Eventually, we did not have to do country by country; we covered the whole world.
Earlier this week, we decided to disallow short-term visitors from entering or transiting in Singapore, and to limit returning work pass holders to only those providing essential services like healthcare and transport. These are very significant moves for a small open economy like Singapore, where we have always been connected to the world. But these are extraordinary times; this is an unprecedented crisis, and we had to move decisively to keep our borders safe.
Importantly, we want to focus our resources on the large numbers of returning Singaporeans coming back overseas. We identify those coming back with symptoms as early as possible, right at the airport. We are testing as many as possible; and we are expanding our testing capacity.
But the numbers are large – just from the UK and the US alone, we are getting about 1,200 Singaporeans coming back every day. We also know that we cannot rely on tests alone because someone who tests negative at the point of entry may simply be incubating the virus and could develop symptoms over the following days.
That is why it is important to isolate these returnees and have all of them serve a 14-day Stay Home Notice (SHN), i.e. they have to stay at their place of residence, and avoid contact with others even within the same household. We now have 38,000 residents on SHNs – that is a very large number. The numbers will rise with the growing number of returnees.
Many are understandably concerned about the risk of the SHN returnees infecting their family members; so we have just tightened the regime with additional precautions. We are focusing on the returnees from the US and UK given the higher risks.
We are now arranging for them to be transported from the airport directly to designated hotels to serve out the 14-day self-isolation period. These returnees have to stay in their rooms throughout; they cannot use any of the hotel facilities nor swimming pool nor gym; 14 days in the room; and we will put in place tight security arrangements to ensure this.
For those who have already returned and are presently still serving their SHN at homes, they too can apply to stay in these designated hotels if they so prefer. This is a huge operational and logistical undertaking, given the volume of people we are receiving every day. We are able to make use of the empty bed-spaces in hotels. But we still need to ramp up manpower to enforce the self-isolation. I want to acknowledge the hard work of all our public officials, who did an excellent job in getting this ready within a very short period of time.
There is no telling how long this current wave of returnees and imported cases will last. There are more than 200,000 Singaporeans overseas. With more lockdowns imposed in countries elsewhere, more may want to return here to Singapore; and we should welcome them. So, we have to be prepared for more returnees and have arrangements to ensure that they are self-isolated for the full period before they can be brought back within our community.
At the same time, we do not want Singaporeans to travel overseas at this time, and compound the problem. That is why we have raised our travel advisory to the highest level to defer all travel. Previously, it was non-essential but I think people regard many things as essential. So we say now, defer all travel. Those who choose to do so will have to pay full costs should they need treatment for COVID-19 when they return. Likewise, they will be subject to a full 14-day self-isolation at the hotel, which they will also have to pay in full.
Prevent Local Transmission
Despite our best efforts at controlling these flows at the borders, we do have to be prepared for more cases to emerge, especially given the large numbers of returnees.
Contact Tracing and Quarantine
That is why it is critical to quickly identify and isolate these cases and their close contacts through our ongoing efforts at contact tracing and quarantine. Minister Gan spoke about this and how we are going to ramp up our capacity to do more contact tracing. This is essential because the minute you give up on contact tracing, then you are no longer able to manage the virus outbreak. This is the situation that many countries are facing now; they are no longer able to contact trace the cases as well as their close contacts. We want to continue to maintain contact tracing and put all of the close contacts under quarantine. As of last night, there are around 2,500 persons under quarantine, be it in their homes, or in Government Quarantine Facilities. The numbers give you a sense of proportion.
We will continue with the tough enforcement for both SHN and quarantine cases, including through all the various means we have put in place – remote monitoring, video calls and random house visits. We have put in place also very strict penalties for those who breach the requirements. They can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for up to six months, or both. But as Minister Gan said just now, the biggest penalty is not just a fine or even a jail sentence, but the cost that you impose to others if you were to breach these rules.
We do have an excellent detection system to pick up COVID-19 cases through our contact tracing procedures. One Harvard study called our contact tracing system the ‘gold standard’. But even then, our detection rate is not 100 per cent. It will never be. No system can be 100%, and that means that the virus continues to circulate in our population and there are still cases out there in the community, which will pop out.
That is our greater concern. We monitor very closely the number of locally transmitted cases, especially the ones that are unlinked – meaning that they are new, popping up and we do not know where they originate from. We are seeing more of such cases in recent days. That is why we need to put in place a whole range of additional public health measures to slow down the spread of the virus within Singapore itself.
Other Public Health Measures
We can think of these additional public health measures at different levels. First, we have baseline measures, which we are already doing. What is baseline? Things like daily temperature taking, seeing a doctor if you are unwell, and staying at home. Not shaking hands – now in true multi-racial Singapore style, we have different ways of doing it. We can do the “Salam Mufti”; we can do the traditional Chinese style greetings; we can do Namaste. All of us are practising this in our daily lives now. We uphold good personal hygiene – we wash our hands regularly and do not use our hands to touch our face. We uphold better public hygiene standards – and we are stepping this up through SG Clean, a whole-of-nation effort that Minister Masagos is overseeing.
All of these measures should be continued for a sustained period. In fact, some ought to be new permanent norms, like upholding higher hygiene standards and using common serving utensils (instead of double dipping). So even when the COVID-19 outbreak is over (and it will be over after a while), we should continue to practise some of these standards, these new norms, as a permanent part of our lives. I am not sure about the not shaking hands part – frankly, I think at some point in time, we might want to get back to having some physical contact but certainly not now. So there are many things we will do on a sustained basis, some on a permanent basis even.
But beyond the baseline measures, we do need to rely on additional measures and that is what we call social, or safe distancing. We can think of these measures as extra “brakes” that we apply to slow down the spread of the virus.
Last Friday, we introduced a first set of safe distancing measures. We suspended senior group activities. We pushed for telecommuting and staggered hours at workplaces. We limited large events to less than 250 persons. We said that seats have to be apart, like what we are doing now in Parliament. We wanted one metre spacing spacing in public spaces and F&B outlets.
These measures are progressively being implemented. For example, public sector agencies are now pushing very hard on telecommuting. Where it is not possible, for example for frontline and operational units, the agencies have implemented split teams by location or shifts, as well as staggered work hours, wherever it is practical.
The efforts on telecommuting must go beyond the public sector. All workplaces must go on telecommuting as default, wherever they can. More employers are doing this, but some are still resistant and still want their staff to be physically present in their offices when actually they can work from home. We will get all employers to push aggressively on telecommuting. This is the only way to allow Singaporeans to continue working while minimising their movements and contacts outside, and it is also how we can reduce the load on our public transport system, especially during peak hours.
The measures introduced last week have brought about changes. There are fewer crowded venues when you go out, you can see that perceptibly. You can now see alternate seats marked in dining venues including in hawker centres and coffee shops, so people are seated further apart.
But we have to move faster, much faster. We still hear anecdotes of people going to discos, night clubs, and gathering in large groups. Our big worry is that these can become super-spreader events, spawning new clusters and potential runaway outbreaks.
That is why we proceeded with another set of brakes yesterday – even tighter distancing measures, with the aim of limiting gatherings outside of work and school to less than 10 persons. Let me explain briefly the rationale for these moves. In schools and workplaces, we have been taking precautions. For schools, for example, the MOE team has put in place a range of measures to keep students safe – they sit further apart in classrooms; CCA and inter-school activities have been suspended, so we do not allow inter-mingling of students outside of the classrooms. In workplaces too, we are getting employers to take extra precautions, getting their staff to be seated separately, and as I mentioned earlier, we are pushing harder on telecommuting. But outside of schools and workplaces, we continue to see many gatherings of people and that is what we want to minimise.
That is why we are suspending all entertainment venues like bars, clubs and cinemas. We are suspending religious congregations and services. We are suspending tuition centres – even though the numbers may be small, but the children coming to these centres come from different schools, and they inter-mingle. So we are suspending that.
We are cancelling or deferring all events and mass gatherings. We are putting restrictions on retail malls, museums and attractions, where they have to reduce the density of people moving in these areas and ensure no coming together of groups of more than 10 persons.
These measures will take effect from Thursday 2359 hrs, and will be in place for at least a month until the end of April – that is two incubation cycles. With this significant slowing down of activities and movements, we hope we can break potential transmission chains that may be happening.
These are very major moves to slow the spread of the virus. We recognise the inconvenience and disruption that these measures will bring to people’s lives, and to businesses, but we have no easy options. That is the reality that countries everywhere are facing in tackling the virus – the more we try to stop or slow down the virus, the steeper will be the damage on our economies. We have to do what is necessary from the public health point of view first – to save lives, slow down the virus, and thereafter do our best to manage the economic consequences.
In the last few days, even as the Taskforce was deliberating over these measures, we have been updating the MOF team and the economic team working on the package of measures, which DPM Heng will be announcing tomorrow.
I urge all Singaporeans to cooperate, and to take the latest set of measures very seriously. Our main message to everyone is this – minimise your non-essential activities and your contact with others during this period. You can talk about all the suspensions, different settings, but the simple message: Everyone, minimise your non-essential activities and your contact with others during this period. We must all do our part to stop the spread of the disease, and ensure that we do not end up with a major outbreak of new local clusters.
Mr Speaker, Sir, we are now at a critical phase in our fight against the virus. The latest measures may help to slow down the spread of the virus, but it is also possible, that despite these measures, the number of infected cases continue to rise. If so, we will need more drastic measures, and that would include suspending of schools and closure of some workplaces, aside from those providing essential services.
We will keep the measures under constant review. If the situation worsens, we will apply extra brakes; if the situation improves, we may be able to ease off a little bit, but not go back to baseline; perhaps to a less stringent set of measures, because the pandemic will probably still not be over for quite some time.
Given that we have been tightening our measures recently, I can understand why Singaporeans may be concerned about the availability of essential supplies.
In fact, we have been planning for potential disruption of supplies, be it food or medical supplies, over many years, through stockpiling, local production and diversification of overseas sources. Minister Chan Chun Sing and the MTI team are overseeing this work, and they have been steadily ramping up their efforts across all fronts.
Here too, we need Singaporeans to cooperate. If many people start to build up their own individual stockpiles at home unnecessarily, it would lead to an apparent shortage on the supermarket shelves, and deprive others who may have more urgent need for food and other essential supplies. Such a perception could precipitate more panic buying, which can quickly spiral out of control.
There was indeed some concern initially when Malaysia imposed a Movement Control Order earlier this month. But the situation has now stabilised. The flow of goods and cargo, including food supplies, are largely continuing – although we still have to be prepared that there may well be disruptions along the way. As far as people’s movement is concerned, we have quickly found accommodations for the Malaysian workers who decided to stay in Singapore, and this has allowed essential services like public transport to continue without interruption.
Going forward, the Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee, co-chaired by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and Senior Minister Dato Sri’ Ismail Sabri on the Malaysian side, is discussing a joint mitigation plan to ensure the safe and sustainable movement of people, goods and essential services between our two countries. In fact, Malaysia has now just extended its movement restrictions to 14 April – a few more weeks.
If and when the Movement Control Order in Malaysia is lifted, we cannot go back to business as usual, and have large groups of people moving across our land checkpoints on a daily basis – that will be too dangerous, from a public health point of view. We will need extra precautions on both sides, which are being worked out, so as to minimise the spread of the virus across our land borders.
SG United to Fight COVID-19
Mr Speaker, I have summarised some of our key strategies in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore.
Underpinning all of these efforts is the need for all Singaporeans to take individual and social responsibility. The fight against the virus cannot be done by frontline agencies, frontline workers or government agencies alone. Each and every one of us has to actively do our part. There are many things that we all can do, which Minister Gan mentioned earlier:
a) Upholding good personal hygiene;
b) Taking our temperature daily;
c) Seeing a doctor if we are unwell, and staying at home if that is the case;
d) If you just returned from overseas, ensure you self-isolate for 14 days, even from your family members;
e) Minimising of non-essential activities and contact with others during this period.
All of these measures we will try to enforce, but ultimately it is about individual responsibility, individual actions, to comply with these guidelines.
We are all enlisted in this national effort to slow down the spread of the virus. If we are disciplined about this, we will have a chance to control the situation, and to all protect ourselves, our family members, and the people around us.
In these difficult times, we see the best of Singapore and Singaporeans at work. We have had young people from the Youth Corps Singapore conducting door-to-door visits to share personal hygiene and safety tips with the elderly. We have had many volunteer groups like the Singapore Red Cross stepping up their befriending calls to many isolated seniors. We have had many individuals and volunteers also packing and donating care packs and items like masks, hand sanitisers, and thermometers to the elderly and vulnerable groups.
In these difficult times, we see Singaporeans from all walks of life working flat out to fight the virus. We have our healthcare workers on the frontline making many sacrifices and working tirelessly to care for patients. We have our public officials working very hard too, across all the agencies. Not everything they do is visible to the public eye. But I can tell you that they are working round the clock and it is incredible what they have been able to achieve, especially given the quick turnaround times.
We are literally making new measures every other day, putting in place adjustments to measures almost on a daily basis. This impacts on comms; we have a huge team working night and day to put out public comms materials to inform the public of all of these updates. We have a huge team on the operational side, be it at immigrations and security, going all out to adjust to these changes and ensuring smooth implementation. From time to time, there will be public feedback and public complaints, they take all of these in their stride. If there are lapses, they try to rectify them as quickly as possible. I hope the public will cooperate too; we welcome feedback, but you can do your part by ensuring the accuracy of your feedback so that the agencies do not have to waste time and resources to check for each and every information.
There are many more unsung heroes all over our island – in areas like cleaning, security, airport management, media, hotels, F&B, transport and many more providing services to Singaporeans – all still going strong, keeping their spirits high.
There are many Singaporeans who have stepped up in their own ways, looking after one another and caring for our fellow Singaporeans. Words are not sufficient to express our appreciation for the many Singaporeans going all out to fight the virus. I just want to say a big thank you to everyone who is doing their part.
We recognise there is a growing uncertainty, anxiety and fear amongst Singaporeans. People are asking many questions – how long will this last? How safe will we be? How will our businesses survive?
I received many suggestions and feedback all the time, every day. Some want more drastic measures; some say we are doing too much, and there are too many restrictions. I appreciate all of the feedback. I cannot reply to each one of them individually, but the team is looking at all of them, and we take all of them into consideration as we develop and update our measures.
In some cases, there are no clear answers and solutions, because the situation is so uncertain, so fluid, and changing rapidly by the day. But one thing is clear: we are all in this together, and we will continue to work through the challenges together, every step of the way.
Mr Speaker, sir, it has been more than two months since our work on COVID-19 started. It almost seems like a lifetime ago, but in fact, we are only at the beginning of a very long fight. This will continue for many more months till the end of the year, and perhaps even beyond.
The coronavirus is without a doubt the biggest threat the world and Singapore has faced for decades. Let us rally together and rise to this challenge, because as SG United, we can beat the virus together. We will emerge stronger and toughened after this crisis.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.