Saturday, 15 May 2021

Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures from 16 May to 13 June 2021

Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) in the Fight Against COVID-19
Singapore to cap social gatherings at two, ban dining out until June 13
Tighter restrictions on social activities meant to curb spike in COVID-19 cases
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 May 2021

Singapore will cap social gatherings at two people and ban dining out from May 16 until June 13 in an effort to stem a worrying increase of Covid-19 clusters and unlinked cases in the community.

The stricter restrictions on social activities stop just short of a second circuit breaker, and will also see working from home become the default again for employees.

Rules on events such as weddings, congregational worship services and live performances have been tightened, while capacity limits for malls, attractions, libraries and museums have been reduced, the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 announced yesterday.

Singapore will review the new measures two weeks in, and may further tighten the rules if the situation worsens.

During last year's circuit breaker, all workplaces deemed to be providing non-essential services - including attractions, museums and most stores in malls - were shut, while schools implemented home-based learning.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday urged all Singaporeans to stay at home as far as possible and stick to safe distancing measures when going out for essential tasks. The stricter rules are necessary to stop more cases from popping up, he said.

"The new clusters and unlinked community cases in the past fortnight are very worrying," PM Lee said in a Facebook post. "We are testing more intensively, and doing our utmost to ring-fence the transmissions."


Singapore reported 52 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, 14 May, 24 of them locally transmitted. The number of unlinked cases in the community has increased to 16 cases in the past week, from nine cases in the week before.

The country currently has 11 active clusters, the largest of which originated in Changi Airport.

Infected airport staff had largely been working in a zone that received travellers from higher-risk regions, including South Asia.


Although all Changi Airport passenger terminal buildings and Jewel Changi Airport have been closed to the public since May 13, many people would have visited the airport in recent weeks, and some subsequently became infected, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who takes on the finance portfolio from today.

The concern is that hidden cases have leaked out into the community, he said, pointing out that unlinked cases have gone up.

"We have taken action to close the airport to the public, to ring-fence these cases," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force.

But because the authorities do not know how far the transmission has gone in the community, "we do have to take further, more stringent restrictions", he said.


As part of the new rules, households will not be allowed to receive more than two distinct visitors a day, while individuals should continue to cap their social gatherings at two a day as well.

Eateries and hawker centres will offer only takeaway and delivery services to reduce the risk of transmission due to the higher risk posed by customers in close proximity, dining in for prolonged periods with their masks off, the Health Ministry said yesterday.

Employers have to ensure that staff who can work remotely do so.


To pick up Covid-19 cases more swiftly, rapid testing will now be carried out on everyone who sees a doctor with signs of an acute respiratory infection. This is on top of the slower but more accurate polymerase chain reaction tests that are already being done.

The testing regimen will be rolled out progressively, starting with about 200 Public Health Preparedness Clinics from today.


The authorities will also increase Jobs Support Scheme payouts for food and beverage companies, given the impact of the new rules on their business. In addition, it will waive one month's rental for hawker stall and coffee shop tenants of government agencies.


"We know that this is a very difficult period for everyone; this is clearly a setback in our fight against Covid-19," Mr Wong said, adding that the Government is committed to keeping Singaporeans safe and seeing the country through the crisis.

"Let's continue to stay united, support each other and do our very best, all of us; keep cases down and get through this bump together."


Sunday, 9 May 2021

Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years Volume 2

ESM Goh Chok Tong launches second part of biography titled Standing Tall on 7 May 2021

4G leader will have to bring rest of team together: PM Lee Hsien Loong
He urges younger Cabinet colleagues to take reference from Goh Chok Tong and his team
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2021

As the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) ministers deliberate on their next leader, their eventual choice has to be someone who is able to bring the rest together, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He urged his younger Cabinet colleagues to take reference from Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and his team.

"Whoever will be prime minister must first and foremost be someone who can bring the rest together," PM Lee said in a speech at the launch of Standing Tall, the second of a two-part biography of ESM Goh.

"Pull them together, make the most of the strengths of each minister, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts."

He said this was the secret of ESM Goh's successful premiership.


Singapore's leadership succession was set back after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced last month that he would step aside as leader of the 4G team, paving the way for a younger person to succeed PM Lee when he retires.

PM Lee said the latest Cabinet reshuffle - which saw seven ministries get new ministers - will give Singapore's 4G leaders a chance to work with one another in new capacities as a team.

This will strengthen their mutual understanding and teamwork and prepare them to take over from the current leadership, he added.


ESM Goh, who retired from politics last year, spoke at the launch about how his team enjoyed good camaraderie and had warm personal relations with one another.

"We might have had different points of view, but once a decision was made, all of us rallied behind it," he said. "We trusted each other. We worked as a team, with members looking out for one another. We had a shared sense of purpose. We were united."

ESM Goh also had words of advice for the 4G team - to continue working closely as a team to set the agenda for Singapore. "Show confidence and leadership as a group. Hone your political skills and prepare yourselves to take over the reins from the 3G."

He urged Singaporeans to give the 4G team time to make the important decision about their leader for the country's next lap.


Standing Tall was written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei - now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf - and published by World Scientific.

One topic that comes up several times in the book is the difficulty of getting good people to join politics, a challenge that ESM Goh and PM Lee addressed in their speeches.

People who think that political succession is an "internal PAP problem" cannot be more wrong, ESM Goh said, referring to the People's Action Party.

"It is a national issue. We need people of ability and integrity to serve the nation," he added. "Many have answered the call, and more must do so."

PM Lee said he and ESM Goh often discussed the matter at their regular lunches, and noted that his predecessor's main motivation in having his biography written was to inspire more people to take the leap into politics and serve Singapore.


The Prime Minister acknowledged that the opportunity costs for any individual entering politics are significant, ranging from the loss of privacy to having to give up a promising career.

"But regardless of how difficult the task, we must persevere, and for Singapore's sake, we must hope that we succeed," PM Lee said. "Singaporeans deserve the best people that can be found and developed to serve and to lead them, as one united national team."

This is the only way to maintain the quality of government that Singaporeans have become used to, and the confidence in Singapore that attracts investments and creates jobs, he said. It is also the only way to assure the country's success, to secure the future of generations down the road.

PM Lee thanked ESM Goh for handing over a better Singapore to his successors.

"Now your successors must strive to do the same," PM Lee added.


Wednesday, 5 May 2021

COVID-19: Singapore cannot afford to close borders for long duration, says Lawrence Wong

By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2021

As a small country that is not resource-rich, Singapore cannot afford to shut its borders for a long time, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, was explaining why Singapore did not close its borders to India earlier, given the raging outbreak there.


Singapore stopped entry to all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to India within the past fortnight from April 24.

"We are small… We need migrant workers to build our homes," he said. Foreign workers are also needed for other essential services, including caring for the elderly.

"It's really very hard for us to close our borders permanently," he said. "Instead, we've always taken a risk-based approach in managing our borders from the start."

This involves controlling the number of arrivals. He said the overall number coming in has been going down, even before curbs on arrivals from India kicked in.


"We've already become very tight, to the point that the backlog of applications has been growing… Many projects have been suffering from delays, as all of us know."

He added: "Some of our housing projects may now be delayed by up to a year or more.

"So it does come at a considerable cost to Singaporeans."

Migrant workers who come in are isolated and "we've been progressively tightening that regime over the past few months". They are also tested more regularly.


In spite of all measures, Mr Wong said there will be leaks into the community from time to time.

This can happen even in a country like China with its very tight border measures, he added.

So there cannot be sole reliance on border measures, he said.

"We have to make use of other tools at our disposal," he said.

"If we do all of these well, then we can control the spread of the infection in our community."

As for visitors who tested negative, but later test positive when they want to leave the country, Mr Wong said there are two possibilities. One is they could have been infected in the community while in Singapore.

The other is that the cases involve an older infection and they are "intermittent shedders" of virus particles. If so, they are less likely to be infectious.









Return to Phase 2: Stricter rules on social gatherings to curb virus from 8 May through 30 May 2021
Measures kick in from May 8, but Minister Lawrence Wong urges all to scale back activities from now
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2021

Singapore will impose stricter rules on social gatherings and require more people to work from home starting Saturday, 8 May, in what Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday described as a return to phase two of the country's reopening.

These tighter measures mean people will be allowed to gather in only groups of up to five, down from eight currently. In addition, they will be able to receive only five distinct guests at home each day.

And no more than 50 per cent of employees who are able to work from home should be in the office at any one time, down from 75 per cent at present.

Employers should also continue to stagger the start times of returning staff, and implement flexible working hours. Social gatherings at work should be avoided.

Large events - such as worship services, weddings, funerals and live performances - will see more restrictions in place, including pre-event testing and reduced sizes. Higher-risk settings such as indoor gyms and fitness studios will be closed, as people are often unmasked and in close proximity for extended periods in a small enclosed space.

The measures, aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community, will kick in on May 8 and be in place until May 30.

Addressing reporters at a press conference yesterday, Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force tackling the pandemic, said the measures harked back to phase two of Singapore's gradual reopening after the circuit breaker.

"We certainly hope not to have to invoke another circuit breaker," he said. "But we have proposed quite a stringent and very tight set of measures, so that we can respond robustly and pre-emptively to the latest outbreak of clusters and do our best to snuff them out early, and reduce the likelihood of having to impose more drastic measures down the road."

Monday, 3 May 2021

Death is the only truth - watching India's funeral pyres burn

The grim business of organising mass cremations offers a glimpse of the deadly trail left by COVID-19
By Aman Sethi, Published The Straits Times, 3 May 2021

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - The first 36 corpses were placed in the designated concrete cremation pits and set ablaze by 10 in the morning. After that, all the extra bodies went to the muddy parking lot, for a mass ceremony later.

Last Wednesday, ambulances doubling up as hearses lined up along the narrow street outside the Ghazipur crematory, on the city's eastern border. There were no cremation pits in the parking lot, so hospital attendants in protective equipment carried out the dead and placed them near the scorch marks left behind by the previous day's pyres.

Mr Ram Karan Mishra, the presiding priest of the parking lot, walked among the corpses unmasked and unafraid. "If I fall sick and die, I will go to heaven," he said, before paraphrasing a popular reading of Hindu scripture: "Death is the only truth."


It is an aphorism that India's government would do well to remember. Two months ago, the ruling party claimed that the country had defeated Covid-19. Today, a deadly second wave of the coronavirus ravages India. Crippling shortages of oxygen and hospital beds have resulted in many deaths, including that of a former ambassador who died in his car while waiting for care for hours outside a fancy private clinic.

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, has asked officials to seize the property of people he accuses of "spreading rumours" about shortages on social media. (The police in Amethi, a town in northern India, reportedly brought criminal charges against one man for appealing on Twitter for an oxygen bottle for his sick grandfather.) The Indian government has ordered Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to take down dozens of posts criticising its handling of the pandemic.

Counting the dead

But mass cremations have captured what epidemiologists call "excess mortality" in gruesome detail. Everyone I know has lost someone to the virus. Many have lost several members of their family.

But while you are in lockdown, the dead do not feel dead as much as disappeared. So when my father called me last Tuesday to say that his uncle had died of Covid-19, that the uncle's whole family was ill with the disease and that a cousin of my father's was in an intensive care unit (ICU), I sensed the onset of a familiar numbness.

"I might go out for a drive," I mumbled vaguely to my wife. But as I got into my car the next morning and drove out to several crematories, I realised I just wanted to feel something.

The parking lot in Ghazipur is so small and the bodies are so closely packed that the pyres can be lit only all at once. So the corpses are placed on individual pyres through the day and then ignited in one big blaze in the evening. (Other crematories, especially those with pyres powered by electricity or gas, burn corpses from morning to sundown.)


Mr Mishra, the priest, told me that for the past 10 days, the crematory's staff had been burning between 40 and 50 bodies every day in a space no larger than two tennis courts.

A cremation site is a mostly male space. Many Hindus still believe that only a son has the right to light his parent's funeral pyre. At Ghazipur, small groups of young men briefly put their grief on hold to divide themselves into teams and tend to various tasks. One group runs off to stand in the queue to register the corpse of their loved one. Another dashes to the shed to get its allotted share of wood before all the good pieces run out. A third rushes with the body to reserve a spot on which to build a pyre. Everything in this pandemic - medicines, oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds - has been marked by scarcity born of the government's failure to plan for and procure essential supplies. The crematory is no different.

Last Wednesday, Ms Malvika Parakh, one of the few women at Ghazipur, stood alone amid this frenzy, the body of her father, Dr Dattaraj Bhalchandra Parakh, at her feet. He was a plant pathologist at India's National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and was 65 years old when he died of Covid-19. He needed an ICU bed with a ventilator, but she could organise only a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder.

Ms Parakh's mother died a decade ago; most of her other relatives had Covid-19. A family member who had escorted her father's body from the hospital morgue to the crematory had suddenly felt sick there. So here she was alone, a 32-year-old clinical psychologist standing by her father's corpse in a parking lot-turned-crematory, trying to make sense of it all.

"It's like one of those movies in which the world has been attacked, and there are bodies everywhere," she said, as she looked at the rows and rows and rows and rows of pyres in various stages of completion. "You wait for the superhero to come and save everyone. Only in this case, there is no superhero."

May Day Rally 2021

Singapore Government taking steps to avoid a second COVID-19 lockdown: PM Lee Hsien Loong
He urges Singaporeans not to let down their guard as another lockdown will be a major setback
By Tham Yuen-C Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2021

Singapore has to tighten measures against Covid-19 promptly where necessary to clamp down on the spread of new clusters, and avoid going into a second circuit breaker, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Speaking at the May Day Rally, he said he hoped Singaporeans would work together with the Government against the virus, and not let down their guard.

With new strains of the virus emerging, he noted, things in Singapore can deteriorate rapidly.

"We are watching our own situation, and it can easily, quickly, turn bad again," he said. "If we have to do another lockdown like last year's circuit breaker, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery. Let's not make it happen."

PM Lee's remarks come amid a spike in cases in the community in the past week.

There were 37 cases of community transmission here in the past week, from 11 cases in the week before. Many of them came from the first Covid-19 hospital cluster.

The Tan Tock Seng Hospital cluster, discovered after a nurse tested positive on Tuesday, has grown to 16 cases, one of whom died yesterday. The number of unlinked cases has also gone up from four the week before to 10 in the past week.

These developments prompted the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 to announce tighter restrictions on gatherings, malls and travel on Friday.

"The Government is doing everything we can to prevent these clusters from spreading in the community," said PM Lee yesterday.

"And we will have to be agile and decisive in our response, to tighten measures promptly, when it's necessary, to clamp down on the spread and to avoid going into a second circuit breaker. I hope Singaporeans will work with us and not let down our guard."

He added: "It is not time to relax yet. This is a marathon. Let's keep jogging. Let's keep ourselves safe.

"Don't make the mistake which other countries have done, celebrate too early, relax too fast, let your guard down, cause another wave to come - very often worse than the first - and more nasty drastic measures become necessary."


In his speech, PM Lee noted that with the global recession less protracted than feared, Singapore's economy could achieve growth of 6 per cent or better this year.

But this would only bring it back to where it was before the pandemic, and sectors like aviation, tourism and construction are still not out of the woods, he said.

The recent ban on travellers from India, amid record daily infections surpassing 300,000 there, has worsened the situation for the construction sector, he added.

The Government is therefore working on emergency legislation to help "share the burden more fairly between the different parties - the contractors, the developers and the buyers", he said. It hopes to introduce the laws when Parliament next sits, on May 10.

PM Lee stressed the importance of ensuring the well-being, health and safety of construction workers. Protecting vulnerable groups in society is a key priority, he added, saying he planned to speak on moves to support lower-income workers at the National Day Rally in August.

He said the Government has provided relief to help companies tide over the crisis, drawing on more than $50 billion from past reserves to fund initiatives like the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS).

The wage subsidies scheme, extended until September for the hardest-hit sectors, has been applauded by many union leaders who had asked him if it could be extended further, he added.

"I said, we would think about this carefully. But please remember: JSS is artificial life support. It keeps us breathing for a while, but it doesn't cure us, and it doesn't last forever," said PM Lee.

"We must find a way to fully recover, to get back on our feet, to build new muscles to move Singapore forward again."

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Singapore’s new Cabinet line-up with effect from 15 May 2021

Major Cabinet reshuffle, with 7 ministers given new roles by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Lawrence Wong moves to Finance, Chan Chun Sing to Education and Ong Ye Kung to Health
By Zakir Hussain, Singapore Editor, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2021

Seven of the 15 ministries, including Finance, Education and Health, will get new ministers under a major Cabinet reshuffle aimed at giving younger ministers experience and exposure in more portfolios.

The changes come two weeks after the announcement that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is stepping aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) team.


Mr Heng continues as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, but will relinquish the finance portfolio. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this will free Mr Heng to concentrate more on the whole-of-government economic agenda.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who has been Second Minister for Finance since 2016, takes over the ministry from Mr Heng.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who has been involved in getting the economy back on track and preparing industries to respond to changes in the global economy, will be the new Education Minister tasked to develop young Singaporeans for the future.


Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who has been in the post since May 2011 and a point man in combating the coronavirus outbreak here, will be Trade and Industry Minister and oversee the economic recovery from Covid-19.

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who has been working on reopening borders and protecting Singapore's status as an air and sea hub, will be Health Minister and co-chair the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 with Mr Wong.

Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran will be Transport Minister, while Manpower Minister Josephine Teo will be the new Communications and Information Minister, and Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng will be Manpower Minister.

The changes, which come nine months after the Cabinet was formed following the July 2020 General Election, take effect on May 15.


PM Lee told a news conference that the changes are more extensive than is usual this early in the term of government, but a change in the finance portfolio means other redeployments have to be made.

He also said that he had wanted to adjust appointments in Health, Trade and Industry and Manpower after the election, but decided to let the ministers focus on fighting Covid-19 at that point.


"Most of the 4G ministers have already accumulated experience in a wide range of portfolios," he said. "This round of Cabinet changes will allow them to gain new experience and exposure."

They have to get to work quickly, he added, as Singapore remains in the midst of a public health and economic crisis, although the Covid-19 situation is more stable.

"The reshuffle is also an opportunity for them to work together in new capacities so that they can understand each other better and strengthen their cohesion as a team. This will make the new team readier to take over from me and my older colleagues," he said.


Several junior office-holders will also be rotated. Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon will leave the labour movement and join the Manpower Ministry, while Senior Minister of State for Transport Chee Hong Tat will leave foreign affairs and join NTUC.

PM Lee said the eventual configuration was the result of extensive consultations with many ministers, including Mr Heng. He also expects the ministers to work closely together and cooperate to make sure policies are well coordinated and nothing slips through the cracks.

"When a problem comes up, we deal with the problem holistically and not just each person tackling his piece, leaving gaps in between or overlaps and conflicts between the different ministries," he said.

Friday, 23 April 2021

COVID-19 antibody levels wane in some recovered patients over time; Post-COVID-19 vaccine infections and reinfections could happen, say experts

By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2021

Recovered Covid-19 patients have shown immune response to the coronavirus for "well above" 300 days. Still, studies done by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) found that the Covid-19 antibody levels in some of the patients do wane over time.

That makes it possible for someone who has recovered from the virus to be reinfected later, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak.


He explained yesterday that many of the recovered migrant workers in Singapore have reached the 300-day milestone after being infected with Covid-19. "It is now prudent for us to start monitoring very closely for the risk of reinfection taking place," said Prof Mak. This includes placing recovered migrant workers in the dormitories back into a rostered Covid-19 testing programme, 270 days after their past infection.

Similarly, such stepped-up monitoring should also apply to travellers who enter Singapore, Prof Mak added.


Concerns about reinfection of recovered Covid-19 patients increased this week after the Ministry of Health reported that 17 recovered workers at Westlite Woodlands dormitory tested positive for the coronavirus.


They were tested after a 35-year-old Bangladeshi staying there was confirmed to have the coronavirus on Monday. The workers have been sent to the NCID, where an expert panel will investigate further as to whether these are reinfections.


Prof Mak said: "NCID will need more time to establish if these are prolonged shedding from old infections or they are indeed reinfection cases."

The investigations would usually take about two to three days, but up to two weeks in some cases, he added.


Migrant workers in dormitories form the bulk of the 60,904 Covid-19 cases in Singapore.

About 8,000 workers from the construction, marine and process sectors have received the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, 34,000 workers in those sectors have received both doses.











Monday, 19 April 2021

How best to counter the virus of disinformation on COVID-19 vaccines?

By Zakir Hussain, Singapore Editor, The Straits Times, 18 April 2021

Early this month, a person claimed in a Facebook post that his cousin, a renowned doctor at a private hospital in Singapore, had suffered a stroke as a result of getting a Covid-19 vaccine.

That post went viral, including on WhatsApp and social media chats, prompting Mount Elizabeth Hospital to issue a clarification on April 4.

"We wish to clarify that the allegations in the post are untrue. The doctor's family has also confirmed that the writer is not related to them and has written to Facebook to have the post removed," the hospital said. "You can help us stem the circulation of false information by not sharing the post, and deleting it if you have already done so."

A few days later, another vaccine-related post went viral. This time, the death of an 81-year-old man in Singapore was attributed to his receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.

Again, the claim was circulated online and in chat groups.

A week later, the Ministry of Health (MOH) addressed both falsehoods in detail - and invoked Pofma, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, to require two Facebook pages and a website to publish correction notices.



The posts - on two Facebook pages managed by opposition People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng - and the article, on the Singapore Uncensored website, now carry a note saying that they contain false statements of fact. The note also states that for the correct facts, readers should click through to the clarification here: www.gov.sg/article/factually150421

MOH said, among other things, that as at April 14, "there is no credible evidence for an increased risk of heart attack or stroke with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines which are currently approved and offered in Singapore".

In the case of the doctor, the medical team caring for her assessed that her current condition is highly unlikely to be related to the Covid-19 vaccination, said MOH.

As for the 81-year-old man, he died of ischaemic heart disease - lack of blood circulation to the heart muscles.

But sentiments aligned with those posts continue to be held - and aired - by a minority online and offline.


On Facebook and in chat groups, these sceptics decry the attempt to shut out "the truth" and alternative views, never mind the facts, let alone global scientific consensus.

And I fear they are not likely to be swayed any time soon, in Singapore or around the world.

The risk is that such views gain ground, and traction, at a time when the global vaccination drive is key to recover from the pandemic.

How best can such disinformation about the virus and vaccines be countered?