Tuesday, 4 February 2020

2019 Novel Coronavirus: Ministerial Statement on Whole-of-Government Response

Be prepared for long haul fight against 2019-nCoV, says Health Minister Gan Kim Yong
Singapore has multiple lines of defence, but must be ready to respond to new developments
By Rei Kurohi and Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

The coronavirus outbreak shows no signs of abating, and while Singapore has put in place multiple lines of defence to check cases coming in from abroad or being passed within the community, it must prepare for a long fight against the virus, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament yesterday.

"There could be a long road ahead... We must stand ready to respond to new developments as the situation evolves," he said. He made this point even as Singapore marked the second day in a row of no new confirmed cases, although global concerns of further spread remain.

Mr Gan outlined three potential scenarios.

One, there could be further community spread in more Chinese cities beyond Wuhan, or in other countries, necessitating additional measures to prevent importation.

Two, there could be community spread in Singapore. If this is extensive, steps such as suspending classes in schools and cancelling mass gatherings may be considered.

Three, the virus could mutate to be more infectious and spread widely, resulting in a pandemic.

"We must stay calm, but cautious. Our early intervention efforts have helped to contain the spread so far, but while we hope for the best, we must plan for the worst," Mr Gan said in a 30-minute ministerial statement on how Singapore has been tackling the outbreak.

He noted that Singaporeans may feel anxious, given the many unknowns. "I want to reiterate the Government's firm commitment that we will spare no effort in protecting our people," he said.

"We will act swiftly and share information on the novel coronavirus openly and as soon as possible."

The virus was first reported in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, late last year, and as of yesterday, it had affected more than 17,000 people globally and killed over 360.

Mr Gan told the House that Singapore has set up multiple lines of defence to reduce the risk of imported cases and local community transmission of the coronavirus.

"We have been stepping up our posture and efforts at each line of defence," he said. These include health screening at checkpoints, imposing border controls, and clinics on alert to detect and contain cases.

"Most importantly, all of us must play our part and exercise social responsibility, to prevent or stem any possible spread of the coronavirus in the community," he added.

Mr Gan said it was heartening to know China is doing all it can to arrest the spread of the virus, including restricting travel for its people.

"We have to work together and collaborate with each other. For this reason, Singapore will be putting together an assistance package to help the communities in China affected," he added. More details will be given later.

He also appealed to all Singaporeans to work with the Government in the fight against the virus.

In a ministerial statement following Mr Gan's, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong urged Singaporeans not to overreact or succumb to prejudice.

There have been 18 confirmed cases of the virus here to date, all with recent travel history to Hubei.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministry task force with Mr Gan, gave an update on measures in place to protect Singaporeans.

Mr Wong said 524 people, such as close contacts of confirmed cases and travellers with higher risk, were under quarantine as of Sunday night. Of these, 302 were at home under strict conditions.

Lower-risk groups like travellers returning from other parts of China are asked to take a 14-day leave of absence. They should stay at home as much as possible, among other precautions. But some residents, on learning of someone on quarantine or leave of absence in their block, have asked that they be moved elsewhere. Some landlords have even evicted tenants on leave of absence.

Last night, the Government warned that landlords found to have irresponsibly evicted tenants may face restrictions and could even be barred from renting out their flats to foreign work pass holders in future.

Mr Wong said such behaviour was irresponsible. "Such actions are not helpful, and they have no place in our society. We are bigger than this in Singapore," he said.

Both ministers noted that such attitudes were in the minority.

Mr Wong said most people, including healthcare and transport workers, were carrying on with their lives quietly, doing what they can to fight the virus.

Mr Gan said: "This is a fight that calls on every individual to do his part. We are confident that we can manage and overcome this challenge as a nation, and emerge stronger together."

Singaporeans urged not to overreact or be overwhelmed by fear, says National Development Minister Lawrence Wong
Look out for one another, including those on quarantine or leave of absence, says minister
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

Singaporeans are concerned about their well-being and that of their family in the light of the coronavirus, but should not let their fears overwhelm them or cause them to overreact, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

He urged people to support each other and look out for one another - including those who are on quarantine or leave of absence from work - saying there is no need to fear having a government quarantine facility nearby or someone in the same block under quarantine.

Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the spread of the virus here, also updated Parliament that as of Sunday night, there were 524 people under quarantine. Of these, 222 were in government quarantine facilities, while 302 were serving quarantine at home.

"Persons under quarantine are required to stay in their designated locations at all times during the quarantine period," he said. "They cannot physically interact with others living in the same premises."

Those under home quarantine will have to take video and phone calls to ensure they do not leave, and regular spot checks will be carried out. Those who breach quarantine orders may be fined or jailed.

In a ministerial statement, Mr Wong said being able to detect and isolate infected patients and their close contacts is Singapore's second line of defence - after border controls - against the virus that was first reported in Wuhan and has infected more than 17,000 people and killed more than 360.

While high-risk individuals are put under quarantine, lower-risk groups such as travellers returning from other parts of mainland China are asked to take a 14-day leave of absence from their return date. "This is one way to reduce their exposure when they are back, and thus reduce the risk of community spread in Singapore," he said.

Those on leave of absence are expected to remain home as much as possible and keep records of those they come into close contact with. They should also minimise time in public places, avoid crowds and keep tabs on their health.

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said some residents living near government quarantine facilities have expressed concerns over this proximity, to which Mr Wong replied that there is no reason to fear having such a facility nearby.

"We have to be mindful that anyone who is in quarantine is not an infected person," he said. "They have been exposed, so they are of some risk... So, we want them quarantined, just to be safe."

He reiterated that there are strict protocols in place to ensure that people stay within the quarantine facilities, and that places visited by those diagnosed with the virus are thoroughly disinfected in a process supervised by the National Environment Agency. "With all these measures in place, we should continue to assure Singaporeans that there is no need to be fearful or overreact due to fear or panic," he said.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) said news that about 30,000 work pass holders from China left Singapore over the Chinese New Year break and had not returned had caused some anxiety among residents, and asked if there was a way to ensure that they complied with the leave of absence strictly.

In reply, Mr Wong said the authorities were working with employers to identify them and where they live so that if they are living in dormitories, these could be fitted so the returnees can be in more isolated areas and not interact with others.

The Government is also looking at measures to help employers who are impacted by the outbreak.

In his statement, Mr Wong said he could appreciate that many Singaporeans are concerned for themselves and their family members, but stressed that they have to do their part to cooperate.

"Some residents, upon learning that there is a person under home quarantine or on leave of absence in the same apartment block, have asked that the person be moved elsewhere," he said.

He also cited reports of land-lords stigmatising tenants based on their nationality, or evicting mainland Chinese tenants who are on leave of absence.

"If landlords start turning tenants away, then our overall containment efforts will be much harder, and we end up endangering ourselves and others," he said. "The outcome will be completely counterproductive."

"We should not condone such irresponsible actions that will end up putting Singapore and Singaporeans at greater risk," he added, saying other examples of irresponsible behaviour include attempts to profiteer from the sale of masks and the spread of falsehoods online.

He stressed that Singaporeans have a responsibility not to spread unverified information or fake news which can cause needless panic and fear. The Government has used the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act to correct such statements, and will continue to do so, he said.

It has also stepped up its efforts to provide timely and accurate information, he added, urging people to turn to official or credible sources and be discerning about the information they share.

He also noted that anti-mainland Chinese sentiment has emerged among some groups, both online and in the real world.

"Such actions are not helpful and they have no place in our society. We are bigger than this in Singapore," he said. "I hope all of us in this House - regardless of political party - will stand together and do our part to confront and condemn such prejudice and discrimination wherever they exist."

Concerns over coronavirus addressed
By Joyce Teo, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

In Parliament yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and other ministers fielded questions from MPs on the coronavirus, its spread and what is being done about it. Here are some of the questions answered by Mr Gan.


Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar GRC) asked Mr Gan for his comments to employees who seek certification on being free from the coronavirus in order to go back to work.

Mr Gan said there is no such thing.

This is because the virus has an incubation period, during which the patient may have a very low or zero viral load. He may thus appear to be virus-free at a particular moment, even though he may already be infected.

Hospitals or screening centres "can only say that for this moment in time, the test shows no virus detectable in his bloodstream", said Mr Gan, who added that the virus can emerge the following day or hour.

He urged employers not to send their workers to hospitals for testing in order to certify that their workers are virus-free.

The best way to determine if one is free of the infection, he said, is for anyone who has returned from China or who has been exposed to others who have returned from China to monitor himself for 14 days.

Should he display symptoms, he should wear a mask and see a doctor, and tell the doctor his travel history.


Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad asked for an update on the health status of the 18 patients who are currently under observation.

Mr Gan said most of them are improving, and they hope to be able to see a patient being discharged soon. "Currently, there is no curative treatment. That means we are not able to definitively cure a person."


Dr Chia Shi-Lu (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked about the criteria of discharge, given that people are wondering when the first of the coronavirus patients will be discharged from hospital.

Mr Gan said a patient will have to show a negative viral load in two tests done a day apart to be deemed virus-free before he is considered for discharge.

However, at the end of the day, despite all the tests that they do, doctors will have to assess the patient and be confident that he "is well, doesn't look sick, doesn't have symptoms", he said.

And the patient may be kept for a while longer in hospital "to make sure that there is no further deterioration before he is discharged".


Dr Chia also asked if this virus has super-spreaders, who during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak here in 2003 "caused havoc in our healthcare system". A super-spreader is someone who infects more than 10 secondary contacts.

For the coronavirus, it is estimated that one infected person will pass it on to about 2.2 persons.

Mr Gan said the health authorities are on the alert for super-spreaders, but they have not received any report of such instances so far.

He said that sometimes, the infected person may appear to be quite well and thus be able to go to many places where he can spread a lot of potential contaminants in the environment.


Nominated MP Anthea Ong asked how this virus causes death, which is the source of the fear now, with some thinking that they would "drop dead" once they get infected.

Mr Gan said the risk of death from this infection will be higher if one already has underlying medical conditions, as the body is weaker. The organs may already be impaired and "tend to fail progressively as the disease progresses".

Older people generally tend to have more under-lying conditions, but there have been exceptions, as some infected patients are in their 30s and 40s, he said.


Workers' Party MP Low Thia Khiang asked about the coronavirus being less deadly than Sars.

Mr Gan said that the fatality rate, at this point, stands at around 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

It would thus seem to be less deadly than Sars, which had a fatality rate of around 10 per cent, though this is still the early stage of the development of the coronavirus.

Coronavirus: Only isolated cases of transmission by patients without symptoms, says Gan Kim Yong
Spread of virus mostly occurs when patient coughs or sneezes, says Health Minister
By Joyce Teo, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

There is evidence that the new coronavirus can be spread before the infected person shows any symptoms.

This, however, is uncommon, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, as he spelt out what is known so far about the virus. He said this form of transmission has so far involved isolated cases only.

At this point, the evidence still points towards higher transmissibility when the person is displaying symptoms - which is generally the case with coronaviruses, he told Parliament yesterday.

Those who are exposed to the virus may be well for a few days before developing symptoms such as a fever or cough. Some may subsequently develop pneumonia.

The coronavirus was first reported in the city of Wuhan, in China, on New Year's Eve. As of yesterday, it has affected more than 17,000 people and killed over 360 in China. There are now 18 confirmed cases in Singapore - 16 Chinese nationals and two Singaporeans - all of whom had travelled from Wuhan.

Although there is now no evidence of community spread in Singapore, people here and in some other countries have been scrambling to stock up on masks to protect against the coronavirus.

Currently, the evidence suggests that transmission is mostly via droplets. "What this means is that the virus is carried within droplets emitted from an infected person over a short distance, such as when the person coughs or sneezes," Mr Gan said in a ministerial statement.

"If these droplets come into contact with the eyes, nose or mouth of an individual, directly or indirectly through hands that have come into contact with these droplets, the individual may become infected."

However, potential infection from asymptomatic persons is less likely to be from coughing or sneezing directly, but "more likely by touching contaminated surfaces, for which masks offer no protection", said Mr Gan.

Contact transmission can happen when a person sneezes or coughs, and the droplets fall onto the surfaces of tables and chairs, for example, where the virus may remain active for "most likely two to three days", although this is not certain yet, said Mr Gan.

Then, when someone touches the surface, the virus can be transferred to his hand, and if he then rubs his eyes or nose without washing his hands, he may become infected.

"This is also why we only quarantine the close contacts of confirmed cases. For more transient contacts, such as individuals that the confirmed cases may have walked past in malls or hotels, the risk of transmission is low."

A key reason why some people have started wearing masks is the fear of breathing in the virus in public. However, the minister said there is currently no evidence to suggest that the virus is airborne.

"There are other viruses, such as chickenpox, which can easily be transported via air currents and do not require droplets to contact the eyes, nose or mouth of another individual. The novel coronavirus is not in this category of viruses," explained Mr Gan.

Medical professionals continue to advise that the most effective protection is to practise good personal hygiene. Regular hand washing with soap and water, and not touching our faces with our hands, is a seemingly simple move that is actually very effective in preventing all kinds of infections, Mr Gan said.

"Wearing a mask when we are well often gives us a false sense of security instead, and we are more likely to touch our faces when we constantly adjust our masks, which is one way the disease spreads."

A light-hearted moment in Parliament yesterday came when Mr Gan relayed a message from Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. "He said while I was giving my speech, he has observed 13 out of 41 MPs sitting opposite us have touched their face, within just 25 minutes.

"So... touching (your) face or whatever it is, I think it is not easy to avoid. But please wash your hands."

Landlords who evict irresponsibly may face sanctions
The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

Landlords found to have irresponsibly evicted their tenants could face restrictions and even be barred from renting out their flats to foreign work pass holders in future, the authorities said last night.

In a joint statement, the Manpower, Education and National Development ministries said they had received feedback about landlords evicting tenants who are placed on home quarantine orders or leave of absence (LOA) due to the coronavirus, and based on their nationality.

The ministries said such persons, who could be workers or students, are well, and these are simply precautionary measures to protect Singaporeans from the spread of the coronavirus.

"Guidelines are available for landlords to adopt should they have a tenant who is on home quarantine or LOA. There is no need for landlords to evict (such) persons," they said.

Some landlords in Singapore, fearing infection risk, turn away tenants returning from China
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

Computer salesman Thomas Chua, 67, has a tenant from China who is due to return to Singapore this week.

But Mr Chua has told his tenant, a factory supervisor who has been renting a room from him for more than seven years, that he is not allowed to step into his Housing Board flat in Sembawang when he returns. He is also asking his tenant if he can delay his return to Singapore.

Though his tenant has told him that he did not travel to Hubei province, where its capital Wuhan is at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, he believes there is still a risk of transmission.

"I read in the news that workers who are coming back from China will not be allowed to go back to work for 14 days in case there is a risk of them getting the coronavirus. If I let him stay in my house, what if he is infected and I get the virus?" said Mr Chua.

Employment agents and employers are starting to see cases of landlords like Mr Chua who are closing the door on tenants returning from China. This has left them scrambling to find alternative accommodation for the workers, who have to be placed on a leave of absence for 14 days when they return as a precautionary measure in the light of the coronavirus outbreak.

An owner of a food factory, who declined to be named, said that his employee, an assistant production supervisor from Sichuan province, had nowhere to go after she arrived in Singapore around midnight on Sunday.

"Her landlord told her that he will take her back only if she shows no symptoms after the 14-day leave of absence period is up. Though we managed to book a hotel for her, they rejected her when she arrived. She ended up hanging around at 24-hour locations outside the whole night. It is a very bad situation," said the factory owner.

Yesterday, he managed to contact a relative, who agreed to put his worker up temporarily in a spare house that she had been intending to rent out.

Employment agents like Mr Vincent Tan, a partner at Trust Vision Employment Agency, expect to see more such cases.

On Sunday, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said 30,000 work pass holders of Chinese nationality left Singapore over the Chinese New Year break and had not returned. But not all of them live in rented accommodation in housing estates; some are in dormitories for foreign workers.

So far, about a third of the 80 to 100 Chinese workers placed by Mr Tan's agency, who are returning to Singapore, have run into issues with their landlords or roommates, who are unwilling to live with them during the 14-day period.

Most of them work in manufacturing or services, and none is from Hubei province, Mr Tan added.

Meanwhile, some who have already returned are staying with friends, who are also foreign workers here, while observing the 14-day leave of absence.

An employment agent who declined to be named said about a third of her clients, mainly firms in the semiconductor industry, have workers who have been turned away by landlords.

She now knows of at least 10 workers who have been told they cannot return to their rented rooms in HDB flats. "We are working with their employers, who are paying housing agents to help them find landlords who can take them in," she said.

Several ministers, including Mrs Teo, have said they are aware of this happening, and have in recent days urged Singaporeans not to ostracise and evict those on the mandated leave of absence. This is because "by and large, they are not unwell", Mrs Teo said.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong added in Parliament yesterday that the authorities are also looking at how to help landlords, employers and households impacted by leave of absence arrangements.

Lawyer Wilbur Lua of Covenant Chambers said that tenancy agreements do not usually give landlords a general right to evict their tenants at their discretion. A landlord can usually evict his tenant only if there is a material breach of the agreement, such as if the tenant is not paying his rent or has illegally sub-let the unit.

Lawyer Chia Boon Teck of Chia Wong Chambers said that in cases of eviction based on terms not covered in the tenancy agreement, tenants may file a claim against their landlords in the Small Claims Tribunal or sue the landlords in the State Courts for a breach of tenancy agreement. They may also go for mediation to settle such landlord-tenant disputes, he added.

Singaporeans in China will get treatment and support: Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan
Govt will look out for them and ensure that no Singaporean is left behind, he says
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has pledged that no Singaporean will be left behind and the Government will do its best to ensure each and every Singaporean in Wuhan and other parts of China will have "all the necessary treatment".

"If additional support is needed, obviously we will look at that," he said in Parliament yesterday, adding: "We will not leave anyone behind. We will look out for you."

He also reiterated a point made by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who said that the coronavirus is not just China's problem, but a common threat which requires cooperation to resolve.

"I commit that we will continue to work closely with the Chinese authorities," Dr Balakrishnan said. "Any way in which we can help them is also helping all of us collectively."

About 140 Singaporeans are still in Wuhan city, and most of them have spouses who are not Singaporeans, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told the House earlier yesterday.

"They have either chosen to remain in China for the time being or would like to come back, but we have to work out arrangements because it is not so straightforward being married to a non-Singaporean," he added.

Mr Wong also said the Government is in touch with the Chinese authorities on what more can be done, as well as with the Singaporeans themselves.

He was replying to Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), who had also asked if there are any Singaporeans outside the hardest-hit province of Hubei who have contracted the coronavirus.

"We do not know of anyone at this point in time," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the spread of the coronavirus.

A total of 92 Singaporeans were flown home from Wuhan, Hubei's capital city, last Thursday. But four were unable to board the flight because they showed symptoms of the coronavirus, with one of them hospitalised, Mr Wong said.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) asked if it was possible to bring the four back as well for treatment in Singapore.

Replying, Dr Balakrishnan said: "China has been very responsible and very responsive, and is taking all necessary measures to look after our Singaporeans who are still there."

He added that from a medical point of view, it is "most unwise" to put people on a commercial aircraft when they have a fever and are potentially actively shedding the coronavirus.

"There was good medical rationale," he said. "That is why the Chinese authorities made, in my opinion, the right decision that these persons should not fly."

He urged all Singaporeans in China to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that the ministry can stay in touch with them, monitor their conditions and give them appropriate advice.

"Obviously, if there is a possibility or a need to mount further operations, this ability to communicate quickly and effectively is absolutely necessary," he said.

Lessons on coronavirus to be rolled out in schools: Education Minister Ong Ye Kung
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

The Ministry of Education is rolling out a campaign to teach students in schools and pre-schools about the coronavirus, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

The lessons will teach students what the virus is, how it is transmitted and outline two things they need to do to prevent its spread.

These include washing their hands with soap often and resisting the impulse to touch their faces, Mr Ong told Parliament.

The intention is to give students "homework" in the form of bringing the information home and telling their parents about it, he said.

Mr Ong was responding to Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who asked if there are measures in place for children who may not be aware of the virus or practise proper hygiene, even as the Government continues to educate Singaporeans on the outbreak.

She was one of 20 MPs who asked supplementary questions in response to ministerial statements on the virus by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Dr Intan also asked if overseas school trips would be cancelled or postponed in response to the evolving coronavirus situation and the outbreaks of other viruses such as the recent avian flu (H5N1) outbreak in China's Hunan province and India's central Chhattisgarh state.

Mr Ong replied that all overseas trips to China for students from primary schools to tertiary institutions have now been postponed. His ministry will continue to monitor cases in other parts of the world and look at the facts before making further decisions, he added.

Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked if schools would be closed in the event of a community spread here and whether there will be announcements of alternatives available to parents.

Mr Ong said school closures must be considered and planned for.

He noted that schools were closed for several weeks at the height of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003. "We have to look at the data, at the evidence, look at the situation, and take into account all considerations before making any decisions," he added.

As the world panics, can Singaporeans come together?
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2020

Even as the economic fallout from the coronavirus epidemic deepens, a severe toll could be exacted on individuals and society. And while the Government will roll out measures to help those in need, Singaporeans must play their part.

Yesterday in Parliament, members lauded those who went the extra mile - from National Centre for Infectious Diseases director of nursing Margaret Soon, who cancelled a family trip during the festive period, to residents supplying volunteers with food and drinks, and a former grassroots leader - a double amputee - who volunteered to distribute masks.

Of the latter, Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) recalled the man saying: "I can't walk, but I can man the counter. Can you let me man the mask distribution point?"

But if the epidemic casts a wider pall in the coming months, certain groups of people will be especially affected, MPs pointed out.

Healthcare workers run the risk of burnout, and need sufficient rest and emotional support. The healthcare clusters have been reminded to plan duty rosters with reasonable turnover.

But hiccups cannot be avoided. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong acknowledged that ambulance services faced logistical difficulties in the first few days, as they grappled with new requirements for transporting infected people on top of their usual caseload.

If the situation worsens and school is suspended, dual-income households could find the childcare rug pulled from beneath their feet.

For the self-employed who are quarantined, or even just feeling ill, can there be more wage and medical support for them?

As Nominated MP Walter Theseira said: "We don't want people to have to choose between taking care of their health and earning a livelihood."

MPs asked if there could have been a way to bring home four Singaporeans who were unable to board an evacuation flight last week. Three had shown symptoms of the virus and were deemed not fit to fly, while one had been hospitalised.

Calling for patience, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: "When dealing with a global or potentially global epidemic, it is most unwise to put people on commercial aircraft when they are febrile."

Hanging over all of this is the spectre of around 30,000 work pass holders who are Chinese nationals who left over the Chinese New Year break and have not returned. These workers, who are required to go on a 14-day leave of absence (LOA) when they return, make up not even 1 per cent of the workforce here. Still, the disproportionate strength of public feeling against them is concerning.

This goes beyond the grim humour of "Plane From Wuhan" memes - a play on the Korean zombie movie Train To Busan - to a genuine fear of having someone on LOA in the same apartment block , or just being near a Chinese national.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo wants landlords, dormitory operators and co-tenants not to ostracise or evict those quarantined or on LOA.

Some employers, too, have succumbed to the same fear. Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) cited a husband who refused to let his wife return from China because of his employer's rule that anyone with family members returning from China had to stay at home too.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong took pains to explain that not everyone who is quarantined or placed on LOA is infected. Nor do anti-China sentiments have any place in this society. "We are bigger than this in Singapore. And I hope all of us in this House, regardless of political party, will stand together and do our part to confront and condemn such prejudice and discrimination wherever they exist."

Meanwhile, the basic drill stands. This means washing one's hands regularly with soap, not touching one's face with one's hands, and covering one's mouth when coughing or sneezing - a mantra repeated several times during yesterday's sitting.

In a moment of levity, Dr Balakrishnan counted 13 MPs touching their faces in a span of 25 minutes, prompting Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin to quip that he would allow questions only from those who had not done so.

While information about the virus is still emerging, Singapore is not as unprepared as in the early stages of the 2003 Sars outbreak where it was, in the words of then Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang, "flying blind".

Public response today has been measured if one looks at the lack of queues at mask collection points, and the fact that just over 200,000 packs - only 15 per cent of the total - have been collected.

But what risks being more corrosive is the rise of social media, which did not exist during Sars. Xenophobia masquerading as national security concerns, fake news in messaging systems, are now par for the course in stoking political and existential panic.

A quote from Charles Dickens comes to mind: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity."

It is up to not just the authorities, but also Singaporeans, to decide how best to respond in these trying times.

Safeguarding jobs, businesses primary focus in Singapore's battle against Wuhan virus: Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing
Govt has the means to help Singaporeans but it could be a long battle against virus, he says
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Feb 2020

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.

Singapore supportive of China, confident it can deal with Wuhan coronavirus decisively: Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 3 Feb 2020

Singapore is confident that China will be able to deal decisively with the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

He told reporters that Beijing had brought its national resources to bear on the issue, and others should be supportive of what China is doing and help it. "If we help China deal with this, the problem becomes smaller for everyone else," he said.

His comments come a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said China was doing all it can to contain the spread of the virus and that Singapore's efforts will complement this. China has also imposed travel restrictions on its end, preventing the departure of outbound tour groups.

Mr Shanmugam was at Changi Airport to meet Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers, after Singapore's travel restrictions took effect on Saturday.

He said Singapore introduced the travel restrictions based on medical evidence, and given its small size and population density, especially as those who are affected may show no symptoms for 14 days.

Each country is in a different situation, he added, saying that given Singapore's size, "the spread can be very fast if we are not careful".

"We know (the virus) has spread in other parts of China. How much, we don't know. People could come and... the spread in Singapore, with such an intense density of population, can be quite substantial," he said. "I'm sure the Chinese government doesn't want it, and we don't want it. Our primary duty is to make sure Singaporeans are safe. Our quarantine facilities are limited, our medical facilities can be easily stretched."

He emphasised that the travel restrictions are not directed at any nationality, but are based on geographical considerations.

"If you've been in China, whoever you are, then the restrictions kick in," he said, adding that while 15 persons were turned away as of 1pm yesterday, only one-third or five were Chinese passport holders.

"It is based on science, it is not nationality; and it is based on our own situation and our limited resources, and the possibility that the spread can be quite fast in a place like Singapore," he said.

The Government announced on Friday that all travellers who have been in China within the past 14 days will be barred from entry or transit. Returning Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term pass holders will be placed on a leave of absence of 14 days.

ICA said the others turned away comprised one Spaniard, one Briton, one Malaysian, two Americans and five Indian passport holders.

It also said the restrictions do not apply to Chinese nationals who are already in Singapore. For Chinese nationals who want to extend their social visit passes (SVPs), their applications will be assessed based on prevailing guidelines, it said.

ICA added that as of Saturday, it had approved more than 50 applications from Chinese passport holders to extend their SVPs since the announcement of suspensions of new visas on Friday.

"We are agreeable to extend their stay because, for example, a Chinese visitor who had been granted entry into Singapore earlier, and was granted 30 days' stay, when they apply for an extension, would have been in Singapore for more than 14 days, and there is therefore less risk that they would be carrying the 2019-nCoV, as compared to others who may still be in China," ICA said.

About 30,000 work pass holders from China yet to return after Chinese New Year break: Manpower Minister Josephine Teo
Ministers urge Singaporeans not to ostracise those on mandated leave of absence
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Feb 2020

About 30,000 work pass holders who are Chinese nationals left Singapore over the Chinese New Year break and have not returned, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday.

These workers, who would be required to go on a 14-day leave of absence when they return to Singapore, make up less than 1 per cent of the workforce here, said Mrs Teo.

The figure does not include Singaporeans who have recently travelled to China who will also need to go on a leave of absence when they return. They can go back to school or work only after 14 days, provided they are well.

Mrs Teo, who was speaking to reporters during her visit to Oasia Hotel Downtown with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, where they inspected precautionary measures after a hotel guest was found to have the Wuhan coronavirus, urged Singaporeans not to ostracise those on the mandated leave of absence.

She said landlords, dormitory operators or even co-tenants should not evict these people as "by and large they are not unwell".

The Government had previously said it has heard reports of this happening. "The reason we have introduced this leave of absence requirement is to take extra precautions, and this is to minimise social contact. But we must be mindful that as we take these precautions, we must be supportive of the people who are affected," she said.

Mr Chan also said at a community event that Singaporeans should not reject those who must go on a leave of absence.

"During the worst of the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis, the best of Singaporeans came through; we took care of each other, sent meals to those under quarantine, shared our supplies and medical resources - that's how we overcame the crisis together," he said.

Singapore has been taking measures to reduce the risk of imported cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, and of the pathogen spreading within the community here.

On Saturday, it began imposing stricter travel restrictions on visitors who have been to China in the past 14 days, barring them from entry or transit through Singapore.

Mrs Teo also said people who have been instructed to stay home should exercise personal responsibility and minimise social contact.

"If we are unwell and we show up, whether at restaurants or any other places where there are front-line workers, and we expect service from them, we could put them in an awkward position," she said.

While not as strict as a quarantine order, failing to adhere to a leave of absence could force the Government to take drastic measures, said Mrs Teo, as she reminded employers and workers alike to exercise responsibility.

Yesterday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam praised those who have stepped up to help efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Among them have been soldiers, who packed masks to be given to the public, and volunteers who distributed the masks.

But he called out a "small minority" who have not helped the situation by spreading fake news or anti-Chinese sentiments.

Mr Shanmugam said: "Really, we are bigger than this and our hearts are bigger than this, and we shouldn't come down to this level of xenophobia."

Citing the example of stories of landlords evicting tenants who are on home quarantine or leave of absence, he said: "You know they are on leave of absence or home quarantine so that the rest of Singapore, all of us, can be safe. So if they are tossed out onto the streets, where are they going to go?

"We have to avoid these sorts of irrational actions."

Targeted help for transport, tourism sectors worst hit by Wuhan virus outbreak in Budget 2020: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat
In case of wider slowdown, firms may get help to stay afloat, retain and train their workers
By Tee Zhuo and Aw Cheng Wei, The Sunday Times, 2 Feb 2020

The transport and tourism sectors, worst hit by the coronavirus situation, will get targeted help in the coming Budget on top of broader measures to address any wider economic slowdown, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

The measures will aim to address companies' short-term cashflow needs, and retain and train workers in the coming months by providing some support for part of their wage costs, he added.

Full details of the relief package will be announced at the Government's Budget speech on Feb 18, to be delivered by Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

In a joint statement, the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Trade and Industry warned of knock-on effects on related industries, adding that the Government stands ready to help viable companies stay afloat and workers stay in their jobs in the event of a broad-based slowdown. The ministries also noted that air traffic through Changi Airport has declined and hotel cancellations have increased.

Separately, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday that China was doing its best to contain the virus and Singapore's efforts would complement this. He said: "I have every confidence that we can overcome the challenge before us."

Mr Heng said the situation is "fast evolving" and the Government will continue to refine its plans as necessary.

"But I want to assure Singaporeans that we are ready to take action, and that we will have a strong Budget that will help us manage this challenge," he added.

He was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, where he met hotel staff and taxi drivers.

The hotel was the site of Singapore's first confirmed case of a person infected with the Wuhan virus.

The Ministry of Health confirmed two more cases here yesterday, bringing the total number of cases to 18, which includes two Singaporeans, both of whom had been on the specially arranged flight that evacuated 92 Singaporeans from Wuhan on Thursday.

Mr Heng added that some of the measures would be similar to the Government's $230 million package during the 2003 Sars crisis.

But he noted that there have been several changes. For instance, initiatives like SkillsFuture did not exist then, which the Government will now build on.

Singapore's economic structure has also changed, with increased economic links with China and a larger tourism sector.

"While there are important lessons that we have learnt from previous packages, we must keep a very sharp analysis of what is the current situation and what is likely to evolve," he said.

Mr Heng said the Government's foremost priority today remains the reduction of the risk of infection, adding that coordination between the different agencies involved in Singapore's task force is "improving by the day".

"Those who experienced the last crisis during Sars told me that the flow of information has been a lot better, both from the Government to the industry, as well as from their management to the workers," he added.

One of the measures announced by the multi-ministry task force headed by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong are the stricter travel restrictions that kicked in yesterday.

All new visitors who have been in mainland China within the past 14 days will be barred from entry or transit in Singapore. Singaporeans, permanent residents and long-term pass holders returning from China will be placed on a leave of absence of 14 days.

PM Lee, who was addressing attendees at a Chinese New Year dinner in his Teck Ghee ward, said the enhanced travel measures are pre-emptive and meant "purely to protect our public health".

"We know that China is doing all it can to contain the spread of the virus... It is a much stronger response than what they did when Sars first broke out, so our efforts will... complement China's."

PM Lee also addressed the recent bubbling of anti-China or anti-Chinese sentiment in many countries, and called it unhelpful to the cause of fighting the outbreak.

"Even though the virus started in Wuhan, it doesn't respect nationality or race... Anybody can be infected," he said.

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