Singapore's Covid-19 task force mulls new measures ahead of Chinese New Year


WITH just three weeks to go before the Chinese New Year, Singapore's multi-ministry task force for Covid-19 is mulling over a possible introduction of new measures, now that a new cluster appears to have formed for the first time in months.

Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the task force, said: "There will be potentially a lot more intermingling, a lot more interaction, as has happened over the end of the year, when there were festive periods and we saw a lot more interactions. And therefore, we are considering now whether or not there might be additional restrictions and safeguards that might be necessary to keep the infection under control."

Mr Wong (concurrently the Education minister) and his co-chair and Health minister Gan Kim Yong were speaking to reporters in person for the first time in months to mark a year since the first coronavirus case surfaced in Singapore.

Asked how he envisioned the year ahead, Mr Wong presented a grim picture - that the pandemic would likely not be over by this time next year.

"Even if the majority of people in Singapore are vaccinated, it's impossible for the world to be vaccinated by this year, not at all - which means that all around us, there will be countries where the virus may very well still be raging at the end of the year, early next year, who knows.

"So we will still largely be in this sort of pandemic mood," he said, adding that he is not expecting any major changes by then.

This is the case even though Singapore would have enough vaccines for its population by Q3 this year, and immunisation is already underway for frontline healthcare workers.

In fact, the vaccination programme will be the task force's main focus this year, after a harrowing 2020 spent containing new clusters and bringing the situation under control.

Mr Gan acknowledged the concerns of Singaporeans who are hesitant about being immunised, given that this is a new vaccine. However, he gave his assurance that precautions are being taken to ensure that vaccines are safely administered.

"Today, our number of cases are low, so some may have a misconception that it's quite safe, so it really doesn't matter, and you don't really need a vaccine. But you must remember that the rest of the world is still burning up," he said.

Vaccines will help Singapore to reopen its community and borders safely and more quickly, as it would be too late to vaccinate only after the number of infections has fallen, he added.

Vaccinations for different groups are being carried out concurrently, he said, noting that the programme for essential workers began even before the one for healthcare workers was completed.

Singapore's early response to Covid-19 initially won praise from international experts, but the compliments tapered off as unease grew over the growing number of imported cases, the "hidden reservoirs of cases" within the community and the increasing number of infections within foreign worker dormitories.

It eventually led to the task force enforcing a "circuit breaker" - a period of partial lockdown from April 7 to June 1 - in a bid to slam the brakes on transmission.

At the interview, both co-chairs described this as their hardest decision, knowing that this move would have a significant impact on the people's livelihoods and well-being.

The next hardest decisions were when to exit the circuit-breaker period and how to calibrate the measures that followed, Mr Wong said.

"After we came out of the circuit breaker, we had an allowance of two (visitors) a day. We were initially unsure - what if we allow (more visitors) and something happened? ... If the elderly get infected, the consequences may be quite severe. On the other hand, if you don't allow, and people remain isolated, is that good for their well-being? It's a very difficult judgment call either way."

This is why mulling over new measures ahead of the Chinese New Year is almost like a deja vu, he said.

"Our mindset has to be that the measures are never static - we can tighten, we can relax, but it has to be based on the environment and situation, and we are continuously monitoring and making adjustments," he said.

Mr Gan said that being nimble and staying open to new evidence is an important lesson that has emerged from the crisis - one that will prepare the government for the next pandemic.

"We have a lot of experience in the past, from H1N1 and Sars, so we've accumulated a lot of experience and we think that things should be done this way, or, this is what we did not do before, that's why we could have done better and that's why this time, we should do it this way. But it is not necessarily so because each disease is different.

"The next outbreak could be very different from this one, and if we simply replicate what we do today, assuming that we've already learnt the lesson ... I think the outcome would probably be very different. We must always bear in mind that we need to look for evidence."

While both co-chairs spoke highly of the good working relationship they enjoyed in the past year, there was one small difference between them - and it is down to when next pandemic could hit.

Mr Wong is expecting the world to make a gradual recovery, in terms of the economy and social norms, over the next four years, but Mr Gan is far more pessimistic.

He said: "This is one point where I disagree with him, because over the next four to five years, I'm quite sure the next pandemic will happen."

This is why he is hoping the positive changes that have been implemented with regard to public hygiene can last beyond this pandemic.

"Before we celebrate that finally Covid-19 is over, we always have to be vigilant that the next pandemic is just a short distance away," he said.