SINGAPORE has reached a critical phase in its fight against the novel coronavirus, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Wednesday, as he signalled the possibility of introducing more drastic measures that include the closure of schools and some workplaces if the number of infected cases continues to rise.
"We have to do what is necessary from the public-health point of view first, save lives, slow down the virus and then thereafter, do our best to manage the economic consequences," Mr Wong, who is also co-chair of a multi-ministry task force set up to deal with the virus, said in Parliament.
In an impassioned speech, he recounted how public officials across all agencies have been working round the clock to fight the virus, lauding their efforts especially given the quick turnaround times.
"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," Mr Wong said.
"Words are not sufficient to express our appreciation," he said in a shaky voice overwhelmed by emotion before he paused. "I just want to say a big thank you to everyone who is doing their part."
The latest update on Wednesday revealed a record 73 new cases, bringing the total number infected so far to 631. While the majority of new cases over the past week were imported, Wednesday saw a jump in locally transmitted cases to 35, up from 17 the previous day.
Mr Wong said it has been more than two months since the task force's work against the Covid-19 pandemic began. "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," he noted.
Urging Singaporeans to take the latest measures very seriously, Mr Wong said the fight against the virus cannot be carried out by frontline workers or government agencies alone.
On Tuesday, he and his task force co-chair Gan Kim Yong, who is also health minister, announced a series of measures to close all bars, clubs, cinemas and tuition centres from Friday. All religious services will be suspended and events and mass gatherings cancelled or deferred.
These measures, along with tighter border controls, come as Singapore now faces a second and bigger wave of imported cases from the rest of the world, particularly the US and Europe, Mr Wong said. The initial wave of imported cases came from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus first emerged in late-December.
This is why the government is focusing its resources on the returning Singaporeans, including testing and isolating them, Mr Wong said, noting that there are more 200,000 Singaporeans overseas.
At the moment, 2,500 people who are considered close contacts of confirmed cases have been issued quarantine orders; 38,000 people have been placed on the 14-day Stay-Home Notice, he said, and these numbers will rise with the growing number of returnees.
In response to a question from Alex Yam, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC), about the possibility of a "complete lockdown", Mr Wong said the task force's approach does not hinge on the overall number of cases, but the reason for these cases.
If the majority of new cases are imported ones that can be isolated, there may not be a need to trigger additional measures. "But if we see more local transmitted cases, particularly unlinked ones, and that continue to rise despite all that we are doing with strict safe-distancing measures, then we may well move to activate the next set of brakes in order to slow down spread of the virus," Mr Wong explained. This could include a simultaneous closure of schools and workplaces that are not essential services, Mr Wong said, as parents would need to look after the children.
There was also concern among several MPs that more can be done to implement safe distancing on public transport, especially during peak hours. Mr Wong acknowledged this, but said the issue of public transport cannot be looked at in isolation, as it needs to be considered together with measures aimed at the workplace.
"It is vital that employers take action to do two things. One, get as many of their employees and staff to work from home, and second, for those who really have to come to the office, put in place staggered hours," Mr Wong noted, adding that this will help to reduce the load on public transport. "If the numbers are still high, having safe distancing within a train or bus will mean the queue goes out somewhere else. It will be outside the bus stop, it will be outside the train station."