Thursday, 2 April 2020

Lawrence Wong: Battling the coronavirus pandemic

Health and safety of Singaporeans is paramount: Lawrence Wong
National Development Minister says tough measures will affect lives and livelihoods but can be eased if Singaporeans cooperate
Decisions must be made from public health perspective even if economy suffers, he says
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2020

Tough decisions are being taken - and some of these are affecting the economy - but National Development Minister Lawrence Wong feels that Singapore will just have to "manage it".

Right now, only one thing is paramount: the health and safety of Singaporeans.

But down the road, if everyone plays their part, some of the tough measures that have cramped life on the island as it battles the COVID-19 outbreak can be eased, said Mr Wong, in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times yesterday.

On the flip side, the number of unlinked cases going up could play the spoiler. Or a super-spreader event could unleash a nightmare scenario.

"Our basis of making decisions has to be, first and foremost, from a public health perspective, doing what is right and necessary", said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force battling the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore.

"That, to me, is the key priority."

As the pandemic spreads locally and globally, Singapore has steadily ramped up its defences - from tougher border control and travel restrictions, to curbs on public gatherings, shutting down bars and entertainment outlets and encouraging people to work from home.

Mr Wong said: "There will be economic consequences from these public health measures, but I think that we will have to just manage it... Rather than worry too much about the economic impact and because of that, choose not to take certain important public health measures."

The COVID-19 pandemic is here for the long haul and life will not go back to normal any time soon. But some of these measures can be eased if each person does his or her part, he said.

Using the analogy of brakes that may be applied till the end of the year or even longer, Mr Wong said: "If the situation is managed well by then (end-April), we could lift our foot off the pedal slightly, but not completely."

But if the number of unlinked cases goes up, "we will have to apply more pressure on the brakes" with even tougher measures.

"We have to be mentally and psychologically prepared for this," said the minister, who has been working from home, together with more than 90 per cent of his ministry.

A total of 1,000 people have been infected, with more than 460 patients still in hospital here. Three have died.

Speaking of his experience since he was made co-chairman of the task force in January, Mr Wong said: "Every day, we are discussing, thinking through potential scenarios of how the virus can unfold and then developing new measures, adjusting and updating our measures."

The decisions often have to be made quickly, without the benefit of complete data in a rapidly evolving situation. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong co-chairs the task force with Mr Wong.

The Government knows that its decisions have an impact on people's lives and livelihoods.

But not implementing the public health measures does not mean that there will be zero economic impact, Mr Wong said.

As the virus spreads, people would stop travelling or going out, so the impact on the economy would still be there.

What he fears most, and the reason he does not "have peaceful sleep at night", is the prospect of one super-spreader event. He said: "You only need one event to be a super-spreader event that can cause a large uncontrollable outbreak and then it starts to accelerate.

"When it accelerates and it's out of control, it overwhelms your hospital system and then you start to see rising mortality rates, particularly amongst the more vulnerable groups."

His biggest concern now is the local unlinked cases. There are more than 100 of such cases.

This figure, he said, is more worrying than the "headline number" as it points to the virus spreading in the community.

"We do know that the virus continues to circulate within our own population," he said.

He said it is important to "get all Singaporeans to understand that every person is, in fact, on the front line. Every Singaporean can make a difference in slowing down the spread of the virus today".

Another worry is a new COVID-19 epicentre somewhere in the world. "We had a first wave of imported cases from China, and then a series of local cases," he said. "Now, we are dealing with a second wave of imported cases and a consequential wave of local cases as well."

If the virus epicentre moves to other parts of the world, there may be yet another wave of returning Singaporeans, bringing the virus back with them.

That would not be a problem if those who are sick isolate themselves. While most do, there are some who flout these measures, including the stay-home notice, which prevents people from leaving their homes for 14 days.

Mr Wong said: "When we see such breaches, we will not hesitate to prosecute them, and to use the full force of the law to go after them."

To people who have suggested a two-week lockdown to reset the country back to normalcy, he said there is no short-term fix. "It's just not going to happen."

COVID-19: Government to enforce stay at home telecommuting for workers; seniors must be kept safe via social distancing

Employers in Singapore must allow staff to work from home or risk penalties
Manpower Ministry considers increasing penalties for firms which avoid telecommuting option
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Apr 2020

Employers must ensure that staff members work from home as far as possible, said the multi-ministry task force handling the coronavirus outbreak, as it turned its attention to securing workplaces.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said her ministry is looking to increase potential penalties - including stop-work orders and fines - for firms which avoid implementing telecommuting. "Employers must allow your employees to work from home as far as reasonably practicable. This applies to all workplaces regardless of size, and it should be for all times, all days, and not some times, some days," she said at a virtual media conference - the first such briefing by the task force.

The Manpower Ministry estimates that only 40 per cent of workers in the Central Business District currently work from home.

The new measures on workplaces came as the task force noted the worrying trend of increasing local cases and stressed the importance of safe distancing to protect vulnerable groups like seniors, who are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill when they are infected.

Yesterday, 31 March, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced 47 new cases. Of these, 31 were local cases, with the rest imported. To date, there have been 926 confirmed cases here.

Among the linked cases, certain patterns have emerged, said MOH director of medical services Kenneth Mak. Many were linked by activities, including social gatherings, workplaces or being members of the same household, he said.

While making it clear the Government was taking a firm stand on the need for companies to implement telecommuting - which would ease the potential spread in workplaces and lower the number of people on public transport - Mrs Teo reassured firms that a "measured approach" will be taken when it comes to punishment meted out.

"It is not our intention to simply issue a stop-work order without considering the circumstances of the companies," she said. "We are looking for evidence that the companies have made serious attempts to implement stay-at-home telecommuting arrangements, but we are also mindful that this is not always possible."

At yesterday's media conference, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chair the task force, also reiterated the need for Singaporeans to observe safe distancing measures, especially to protect vulnerable groups.

People should wash their hands before interacting with the elderly. If ill, they should not visit seniors, the ministers said.

The elderly have shown a higher risk of developing serious conditions when infected. Mr Wong also addressed drastic suggestions such as locking down the country for two weeks, saying there was no magic solution. Singapore was in it for the long haul, he said.

Separately yesterday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) also warned that the Asia-Pacific region faces a long battle. Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said: "It is unlikely this virus will disappear next week or even next month."

Even nations like Singapore, South Korea and China that have been gaining ground must not let their guard down, he added, or the "virus will come surging back".

The World Bank, meanwhile, said the pandemic could stop between 24 million and 35 million people in East Asia and the Pacific from escaping poverty.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

National Wages Council 2020/2021 Guidelines

Firms hit by COVID-19 should take other measures before resorting to pay cuts, retrenchments: NWC
Council tells employers retrenchment should be a last resort and those doing it must be fair
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2020

Employers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic should first reduce non-wage costs and tap government support before looking to reduce their workers' wages.

Retrenchment should be a last resort, said the National Wages Council (NWC), in releasing its annual guidelines yesterday. And employers doing so should ensure they conduct the exercise fairly and in accordance with the tripartite advisory on managing excess manpower and responsible retrenchment which was updated earlier this month.

The council's guidelines, made ahead of the usual schedule this year, come as unemployment is expected to rise as Singapore's economy heads into what could be its worst annual contraction.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore eased monetary policy yesterday and said that it expects increasing job losses and slower wage growth amid a recession this year.

It has set the Singapore dollar's rate of appreciation at 0 per cent and effectively lowered the mid-point of its currency band to allow for a weaker currency and spur export-driven growth.

The NWC yesterday made recommendations on the key considerations employers should bear in mind if they have to cut pay in order to save jobs. Management should lead by example, and they should try as far as possible to still pay the annual wage supplement, or 13th-month bonus.

Special consideration should be given to low-wage workers earning a basic monthly wage of up to $1,400.

The council also called on employers to support local staff who want to take on a second job to supplement their income if they have been affected by measures such as reduced working hours or temporary layoffs due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) said that it supports the recommendation for employers who have been adversely affected by the virus to reduce their wage costs, but urged them to do so in a balanced, measured and graduated approach. "The magnitude of the decline means that cutting non-wage costs alone has not been sufficient for some employers to stay afloat," it said.

The council gave other guidelines on reducing non-wage costs, managing excess manpower, and pressing on with business and workforce transformation.

For example, employers can use the excess time to bring forward planned training for workers, and redesign jobs to improve productivity.

SNEF president Robert Yap, a council member, called on fellow bosses to look for opportunities presented by the crisis.

"We should look at how we can use this opportunity to do a lot of things that we have been trying to do. For example, flexible work, productivity, innovation, how do we cut costs, how do we create that kind of habit that we work actually in a more digital manner," he said.

Fellow council member Mary Liew, who is president of the National Trades Union Congress, said that during the negotiations, NTUC had advocated for special attention to be paid to low-wage workers, including giving an ex-gratia payment to those who stepped up to assist employers during this challenging period, and she was glad that this was part of the recommendations.

The Government has accepted the NWC's recommendations.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in a statement on this year's guidelines that they outline clearly what workers should expect from their employers.

She added that the ability of the council to agree on the guidelines under a compressed timeline - it typically meets in April and May, and releases recommendations at the end of May - shows the strength of tripartism in Singapore.

"In good times, we share the gains. In times of crisis, we share the pain - each making mutual sacrifices to sustain businesses and save jobs," she said.

How the Govt is helping Singaporeans to weather the coronavirus crisis

By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2020

If Budget 2019 was a buoyant celebration of Singapore's bicentennial year, this year's edition has been a sombre stocktaking of life amid the worsening coronavirus situation.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in Budget 2020 last month that $6.4 billion will be set aside to help Singapore tackle the economic fallout from the disease.

At the time, cases had just begun to emerge in Europe and the United States. Now, with the world reeling from the pandemic nearly six weeks later, the Government has rolled out a second stimulus package to the tune of $48.4 billion.

The eye-popping sum signifies the gravity of the crisis, as Singapore is setting aside nearly $55 billion - or 11 per cent of its gross domestic product - to weather the storm.

The financial year of the Budget begins on April 1 of every calendar year, and ends on March 31 the following year.

The Government has obtained the President's in-principle support to draw up to $17 billion from Singapore's past reserves to fund measures to contain, if not crush, the scourge.

As Mr Heng, who is also the Finance Minister, put it at a dialogue earlier this month: "Our reserves have been set aside to meet the needs of a rainy day, and it looks like this rain is not a light one."

President Halimah Yacob shared his sentiments in a message to Parliament last Thursday, when a supplementary budget, with a sharp rise in coronavirus aid, was announced.

"The situation we are heading into looks more like a thunderstorm than a drizzle," she said.


The Government's first priority is to save jobs and keep businesses afloat, with extra money for the worst-hit sectors.

These are tourism, aviation, retail, food service and point-to-point transport operators like taxi drivers.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Coronavirus could take years to run its course: PM Lee Hsien Loong's interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria

World must brace itself for long battle ahead, he says, urging US and China to work together
By Olivia Ho, Arts Correspondent, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2020

It could take several years for the coronavirus to go around the world and run its course unless something happens to abort that process, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, adding that the world will have to brace itself for a long battle ahead.

In an interview yesterday with CNN's Mr Fareed Zakaria about Singapore's much-lauded response to the COVID-19 pandemic, PM Lee said he hesitates to call the Republic a "success story" as it is still in the midst of an intensifying battle.

He does not see the pandemic going away in a couple of months and expects it to spread across other parts of the world such as India, Africa, South-east Asia and Latin America.

Mr Zakaria also asked about the role of the United States in the pandemic, noting that President Donald Trump did not seem interested in taking the lead.

To this, PM Lee said the world has greatly benefited from American leadership in such crises for decades.

"If America is in a different mode, well, we will get by and I think other configurations will eventually work out, but it would be a loss."

America, he added, has the resources, science, influence, soft power and track record of dealing with these problems convincingly and successfully.

"It is a pity not to put those resources to work now, to deal with this very grave challenge to mankind."

He also called upon the US and China - which have been pointing fingers at each other for the outbreak - to work together to combat the pandemic.

"It is a most unfortunate situation to be in. I mean, US-China relations have been complicated even before this. But if we are going to deal with this virus, you have got to get all the countries to be working together, in particular, the US and China.

"Under the best of circumstances, it is going to be a very difficult challenge for mankind.

"But if the US and the Chinese are swopping insults and blaming one another for inventing the virus and letting it loose on the world, I do not think that that is going to help us solve the problem sooner."

China, where the virus originated, had been criticised for not being sufficiently transparent about the crisis during its early days. Asked whether that had - as some critics charged - exacerbated the situation, PM Lee said: "I am sure that there were many aspects of the Chinese response to this outbreak which they will look back upon and believe that they should have done better.

"But I do not think overall that one can say this would not have happened if only the Chinese had done the right thing. Because you look at the way the outbreak has continued to grow and spread in many countries, and they do not have the Chinese government and yet they have not found it easy to keep the outbreak under control in their country."

To tackle the virus through herd immunity, a controversial strategy to allow a community to be infected and build immunity to the virus, would be very painful, he said, as a large proportion of the population would have to be infected.

The other way is to flatten the curve, which will take a long time. "You have got to hope for an off ramp to get off that path, and the only visible way to get an off ramp is to have either a treatment or an effective vaccine.

"That is some distance down the road, but many very smart people are working very hard at it. I can only hope and pray that they will make some progress soon."

Asked if Singapore had been able to contain the virus because of its "paternalistic system", PM Lee said that the Government had not exercised "extraordinary powers".

Instead, he said, in the battle against the virus, trust and transparency are key.

"We put a lot of effort into explaining to (the public) what is happening, speaking to them and I have done it a few times directly on television, so people know that we are level and we tell it straight.

"We are transparent - if there is bad news, we tell you. If there are things which need to be done, we also tell you.

"I think that you have to maintain that trust because if people do not trust you, even if you have the right measures, it is going to be very hard to get them implemented."

Monday, 30 March 2020

Coronavirus: Workplace distancing more effective than school closures, says study

Sick adults more likely to go to work than kids are to go to school, spreading virus, it finds
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 29 Mar 2020

Workplace distancing is far more effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 than school closures, said a team of experts.

They noted in a study that sick adults are more likely to go to work than sick children are to go to school. The adults would spread the virus to co-workers, who would bring it back to their own homes.

The team - mostly from the National University of Singapore Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health - said workplace distancing, quarantine and school closures combined give the best outcome, an approach that should be immediately deployed "if local secondary transmission is confirmed within Singapore. However, quarantine and workplace distancing should be prioritised over school closure".

Singapore is not at the stage where all these measures need to be in place yet, said Associate Professor Alex Cook, one of the authors of the study, which was funded by the Ministry of Health and the Singapore Population Health Improvement Centre.

The team assessed various scenarios and the effectiveness of different strategies to keep patient numbers within manageable proportions - flattening the infection curve, as it is called. Their calculations start from the moment 100 unidentified patients in Singapore may be spreading the disease in the community.

The study uses the median from 1,000 simulations carried out for each of five scenarios: doing nothing; quarantine; workplace distancing; school closures; and a combination of the last three.

If all three measures are in place, infection numbers would range from 1,800 to more than 250,000 by day 80, depending on the rate of transmission.

The lower number is based on a rate of one person infecting 1.5 others; the upper figure is from one person infecting 2.5 others. These are the ranges experts have given for the transmissibility of the virus.

At the lower rate, workplace distancing would reduce the number of people infected by day 80 to 4,000. There would be 10,000 infected people if only schools were closed.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament last Wednesday: "If we do nothing, the number of cases will shoot up, like what happened in several cities and countries recently."

The study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal last Monday, noted that if no measures had been taken, the number of infections here would have been between 279,000 and 1.2 million by day 80.

If Singapore had not started contact tracing and quarantining close contacts, there would have been 100 unidentified people with COVID-19 by early last month, with day 80 falling in mid-April.

Prof Cook said the scenarios apply when contact tracing is no longer possible because of the volume of cases, which is not the situation yet.

"At present, transmission is still being contained here: The large increase in cases has been driven by citizens and residents returning from outbreak areas. But there's no evidence that contact tracing is 'breaking down' because of this.

"At least for now, there would be little benefit to closing schools. I'm sure that this option will be considered if children start to play a more important role in the outbreak."

But he said people who can work from home should do so. "Older people, including working-age adults, are at greater risk of complications, which is why work distancing is being promoted."

The study said: "The continually high percentage contribution of work-related infections, despite work distancing being effective, suggests that the workplace is a key infection site in Singapore."

This was supported by Mr Gan: "In Singapore, we saw a few local clusters emerge where individuals who were feeling unwell or had medical certificates... did not minimise social contact, and continued to attend work or social activities."

Singapore invoked the Infectious Diseases Act last Wednesday, giving the Government the power to punish those who flout COVID-19-related medical leave.

The study added that another area of concern is the Singaporean habit of eating out.

About 75 per cent of people go to a hawker centre at least once a week, according to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. If possible, people should be incentivised to stay at home and practise workplace distancing, the study noted.

Singapore has closed all pubs, discos and other leisure locations where crowds gather. Eating joints have been told to keep groups of patrons separated by 1 metre.

The study indicated that most infections, whether interventions are in place or not, would be in the east and north-east of the country. Most of the spread would occur in homes or the community.

The study acknowledged that interventions needed to prevent community transmission might not be widely supported by the population.

But it added: "Current government-led outbreak control measures will only be successful with public cooperation through exercising good hygiene, infection prevention in shared spaces, and adequate education to understand when symptoms might be indicative of a potential SARS-CoV-2 infection."

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Govt will do whatever it takes to help Singaporeans through COVID-19 outbreak: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Government is ready to tap the reserves again if situation worsens in the coming months
By Lim Yan Liang, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2020

While the economic challenge caused by the coronavirus outbreak is very grave, the Government will do "whatever it takes" to stabilise the economy, preserve jobs and help companies stay afloat, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"We want to see people through this; we are under no illusions that this is the end of the story because nobody can tell what lies ahead," PM Lee said at the Istana as he spoke on the $48.4 billion supplementary budget that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled on Thursday.

The country yesterday, 27 March, reported 49 new coronavirus cases, taking the total to 732, including a new cluster of three at SingPost Centre in Eunos.

Giving a sense of the fast-changing situation, PM Lee said the Government had thought the measures contained in the Budget presented on Feb 18 would buy a few months of time for it to assess the situation and put together a second package.

"But we did not expect within one month, the picture was totally changed - the health picture was totally changed, the economic picture was totally changed," he said.

This is why the Government also completely changed its policy response and set aside a further $48.4 billion to support businesses, workers and families - a supplementary budget that is more than seven times the initial $6.4 billion worth of measures to cushion the COVID-19 fallout.

While the combined $55 billion to combat the coronavirus is intended to see the country through the end of the year, Singaporeans must brace themselves for things to worsen in the coming months, said PM Lee.

In such a scenario, the Government is prepared to tap the reserves again. "We have the dry powder," he said. "If we need to do more, when we need to do more, we will do that down the road."

PM Lee noted that economies around the world have been drastically hit and, as an open economy, Singapore has been particularly affected by the flow of goods and people reaching a standstill.

"It is going to last quite a long time: It is not a V-shaped down dip, it is not a U-shaped dip," he warned.

"If you are lucky, you can sustain it at a diminished level for quite a long time; if you are not lucky, it will keep on going down, and some pieces (of the economy) are going to have a lot of difficulty, just staying in existence."

The Government's aim is very clear, he said - to protect jobs and help companies stay in business by reducing their costs. Key industries like aviation will be helped so they can "continue in semi-suspended animation, but able to come back to life when the opportunities come".

"There will be ups and downs," he said. "Therefore, it is critical that we go into this eyes open, (with) strong leadership, good government, united and determined to see this through."

On the next general election, PM Lee said the slim odds of the situation improving in the next few months mean he has to decide whether to call polls "under abnormal circumstances".

"It is a very difficult decision because we are going into a very big storm and you want to have the strongest team and mandate, and the longest runway so that Singapore can have the best leadership to see it through this storm," he said.

"That is a very desirable - and in fact an essential - requirement for us to see through this together."

The Internet and social media mean communications can still flow even though large-scale gatherings have been curtailed, he added. Israel held its own elections recently, despite the outbreak.

PM Lee said he would decide once procedures are in place, including electoral rolls being certified and republished.

"Once that is done, that means all possibilities are there," he said. "I will have to judge the situation."

COVID-19: Singapore schools to implement home-based learning once a week from 1 April 2020 to further support safe distancing

Move, which affects all schools, will prepare students for more days at home if needed
The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2020

Starting on April 1, all schools will conduct one day of home-based learning a week, in the light of the recent spike of COVID-19 cases in Singapore.

Primary schools will do so on Wednesdays, secondary schools on Thursdays, and junior colleges and centralised institutes on Fridays.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday that this move will better prepare parents and students for more days of home-based learning if and when it is required.

Schools will also stagger dismissal times to reduce congestion when students take public transport or school buses home.

Singapore has ramped up measures progressively over the past few weeks to curb the spread of the virus, said Mr Ong, speaking to reporters.

"So, likewise, for schools, which are a major part of people's lives, we have also been stepping up (measures)," he said.

"So, we will not want to do something dramatic, sudden, that will result in school closure."

He added: "We still have options. We are not like many countries, where they are forced into sudden school closures."

When asked how long this home-based learning arrangement will last, Mr Ong said: "It depends how long the virus lasts, and how long we feel it will be around."

Explaining the Education Ministry's thinking behind its decision, Mr Ong said: "If this virus behaves like influenza, that means children get it more than adults, and children become vectors for transmission, passing through the school from one parent to another, one family to another, I think we would have closed schools long ago.

"But this virus behaves differently, which therefore gives us the option now to take precautions in school... yet be able to keep school going, and therefore keep work (and) the economy going."

From Monday, schools will provide instructions to students and parents on how to access the home-based learning materials.

Assistance will be given to students who do not have access to digital devices when their learning requires it.

Students will have about four to five hours of learning on the day of home-based learning, out of which two hours can be used to access digital devices.

Home-based learning can come in different forms such as e-lessons or other references like worksheets and textbooks.

Teachers could also conduct lessons via "live" videos.

Schools will remain open for a small group of students whose parents are not able to make alternative childcare arrangements.

Priority will be given to parents working in essential services such as healthcare or public transport.

A small number of teachers in each school will supervise these students. Most teachers will stay at home on the day of home-based learning, while about 20 per cent of staff, including the principal, will remain in school.

Co-curricular activities will remain suspended for the rest of Term 2, and so will other activities that involve mingling of students across schools like the National School Games.

The Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation will also be cancelled.

Mr Ong acknowledged that the latest move will affect working parents, and he urged employers to "be as understanding as possible".

"I expect other teething issues - whether there are enough devices, whether there is enough bandwidth at home... whether lessons are clear," he said.

Schools already conduct home-based learning regularly, he said, and the ministry has been developing the Singapore Student Learning Space - an online learning platform - over the past two to three years.

On the role that teachers play, Mr Ong said: "Although teachers are not at the front line battling with the virus in hospitals, you are at the front line in terms of our response to the virus."

Thanking teachers, he said: "If not for your work, there will be no confidence among parents to send their children to school."