Key focus on protecting jobs and helping businesses: Chan

Govt has the means to help Singaporeans but it could be a long battle against virus, he says

Protecting the jobs of Singaporeans and ensuring the survival of businesses will be the Government's primary focus as the country hunkers down for what could be a protracted battle against the Wuhan coronavirus, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

"I would like to reassure Singaporean businesses and workers that we stand together with them. We do have the means to help them tide over this difficult moment but we must do this with a long-term perspective," said Mr Chan.

The impact of the coronavirus could be "wider, deeper and longer" than that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2003, and Singaporeans need to be mentally prepared for this, he said, adding that measures in place must be sustainable.

He was speaking to reporters after visiting Oasia Hotel Downtown with Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, where they inspected precautionary measures at the hotel after a hotel guest was found to have had the virus. The 73-year-old female Chinese national was Singapore's 13th case of the coronavirus.

Mr Chan's comments echoed those he had made earlier in the day at a Chinese New Year lunch for residents of Tanjong Pagar GRC and Radin Mas, where he called on Singaporeans to prepare themselves "psychologically, emotionally, economically and socially" as the battle with the virus could be a long-haul one.

Previous epidemics lasted from a few months to a year, and had wide implications, disrupting global supply chains and affecting industries from tourism to manufacturing. "Because we don't know how long this situation will last, all the measures we take, be it in health, or economics and jobs... must be sustainable. We cannot just be taking measures for the short haul, thinking that it will blow over," he said.

The coronavirus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December last year, has so far proved to be more infectious than Sars, but less deadly, with a fatality rate of 2 to 3 per cent in China, said Mr Chan. Sars had a fatality rate of about 9.6 per cent.

China has been grappling with containing the virus, which has made thousands sick and killed more than 300 people. So far 18 people, including two Singaporeans, have been found to be infected here.

During the hotel visit, Mr Chan said that while it was still too early to put a number to the economic hit from the outbreak, the Government would take several measures with immediate effect to help tourism businesses mitigate the impact.

It will waive licence fees for hotels, travel agents and tourist guides, as well as defray the cleaning and disinfection costs of hotels that had confirmed and suspected cases of the virus. This initial package is part of a full raft of measures that will be detailed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in the upcoming Budget speech on Feb 18.

The Government is also studying the possibility of giving bridging loans to help businesses with cash flow issues, said Mr Chan.

The tourism industry is one of the more heavily impacted, he added, noting that for some businesses, the bulk of their revenues comes from the Chinese market. China has banned outbound group tours to contain the spread of the virus.

The outbreak has also hit the aviation industry. "We will be looking at measures to see how we can help them defray their costs as well as maintain air connectivity between Singapore and China," he said.

In the first 13 hours of Singapore's entry restrictions on new visitors who had been to China within the past 14 days, which kicked in at 11.59pm on Saturday, 15 travellers were denied entry, just five of whom had Chinese passports. Another five held Indian passports.

Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term pass holders returning from China will be placed on a leave of absence for 14 days.

Mrs Teo urged people on leave of absence to stay at home and minimise social contact.

She added that trade associations will be issuing advisories soon, which will give front-line workers guidance on how to deal with customers who are unwell.

Yesterday, the Health Ministry said it had not been notified of any new confirmed cases in Singapore, and that all of the 18 previously announced cases remained in stable condition. Most are improving.

Today, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong will deliver a ministerial statement in Parliament on the whole-of-government response to the virus.