Saturday, 1 February 2020

Wuhan virus: Singapore has to stay vigilant, but has every reason to be confident, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

Republic has plans in place and is nowhere near point where virus spreads in community
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2020

While Singapore has to remain vigilant as the Wuhan virus outbreak continues to develop, there is every reason to be confident the country can overcome this challenge, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He noted that the outbreak is still accelerating in China and has spread to many other countries.

"No other country has got a huge number of cases like China has so far, but we do not know how the countries will be able to react, detect and contain the virus," he told reporters yesterday during a visit to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).

"It can become a major problem for the world, and not just for a short while, but for quite a long time to come. So, we have to continue to be on guard."

PM Lee also made the point that Singapore has been preparing for such a situation since the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003.

"We have built up our institutions, our plans, our facilities, our stockpiles, our people and our training because we knew that one day, something like that would happen again," he said. "So, when this thing came about, in a way, it is a shock, but it is not a surprise."

The Government has its plans in place and the public is very aware of the situation, he said, urging people to do their part and be sensible.

"We are doing everything that we can. There is every reason to be watchful, but also every reason to be confident," he said.

Commenting on the World Health Organisation's (WHO) move to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, PM Lee said Singapore has been taking the epidemic seriously all along, and that WHO's assessment "confirms our view of the situation".

A total of 16 people in Singapore have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus so far. One is a 47-year-old Singaporean woman who was evacuated from Wuhan on Thursday, while the other 15 are Chinese nationals who travelled here from the city.

The majority of the 16 patients have been warded in the NCID.

PM Lee visited the centre to observe the screening and containment process for affected patients.

"The doctors tell me the patients are generally doing well, which is good news," he said.

He also met the centre's senior leaders and thanked front-line staff for their efforts.

Asked about the Government's plans in the event that the virus begins spreading in the community, PM Lee said Singapore is "not anywhere near that point".

"We do our best to make sure we prevent community spread," he said.

"If we are vigilant, if people come forward when they are unwell and we can identify the cases and isolate them, I think that we are a long way from having a community spread."

He also noted that anti-Chinese sentiments have been reported elsewhere in the world, with people reacting particularly strongly to mainland Chinese because they are believed to be the cause of the infection.

"I think that is not quite the right approach to take. This is an illness; I don't think the Chinese wished it upon themselves," he said.

"They are trying very hard to fight it, and I think we should work with them to help make sure this is not a global problem."

He added: "We have to protect ourselves, but we have to be quite clear that this is not a virus which is only carried by people who come from China. It is a virus which can affect any human being. And I think we should have that firmly in mind."

PM Lee also said the outbreak will affect Singapore's economy, especially since China is a major source of tourist visitors and is also Singapore's largest trading partner.

At present, the number of Chinese tourists has already "tailed off considerably", he noted, adding: "Tourism from other sources will also tail off because everybody will be cautious and will stay at home and avoid travel."

PM Lee said he expects the rest of the economy to also be affected "because with China in semi-lockdown mode now, their economy is bound to slow down, and our economy is quite tightly engaged with theirs."

He also said that the Government is looking at ways to help businesses and Singaporeans through this period.

Follow doctors' advice and what's best for us as a community: PM Lee
Sufficient supply of masks here if they are used only when needed; masks can lull wearers into false sense of security
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2020

Singaporeans should follow doctors' advice on how best to protect themselves from the Wuhan virus, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

"For individuals, you have to take the best advice on how best to protect yourself, and what is the best thing for us to do collectively as a community, in order to get through this safely and well," he said yesterday.

PM Lee also gave the assurance that there is sufficient supply of masks in Singapore.

"We have not run out (of masks); there are plenty. But if everybody wears one every day, well or not well... every day I will need six million times three or four masks. And in that case, I will run out," he noted.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, he urged Singaporeans to practise good hand hygiene, pointing out that masks can lull the wearer into a false sense of security. "The mask gives you a false sense of security because most of the time, you don't get the virus from breathing it in," he said.

"You get it from contact, and you need to take the rest of the precautions - to wash your hands, to keep yourself clean, and to know you are unwell and to stay away from crowds."

He added: "If you are well, go about your life as normal."

Asked what measures are in place should the virus begin spreading in the community, PM Lee said "we are not anywhere near that point".

A total of 16 people in Singapore have been diagnosed with the virus. All of them - comprising 15 Chinese nationals and one Singaporean - had travelled to Wuhan recently.

PM Lee said: "We do our best to make sure we prevent community spread. If we are vigilant, if people come forward when they are unwell and we can identify the cases and isolate them, I think that we are a long way from having a community spread."

He noted that the Wuhan coronavirus, despite its similarities to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, behaves somewhat differently.

For instance, it is probably more infectious than SARS, and possibly infectious even before people have symptoms, he said.

"But on the other hand, if you look at the data coming out from China, and even the cases we have here, it is not as lethal as the SARS virus. The death rate is much lower," he said.

He added that China is also reporting that although 20 per cent of cases become seriously ill, around half the infected people do not have pneumonia.

"It is an illness which we are still trying to get the shape of. I don't think we need to panic," he said.

At present, the Government is trying to look ahead to see what can go wrong, and take preventive steps, PM Lee said.

"If you see something didn't go wrong, it is not just 'heng (Hokkien for lucky) ah, I am very happy it didn't happen'," he said. "It means we have done things which were right, and we are glad that it didn't have to be tested."


PM Lee confident China and other nations will work together to beat Wuhan virus
China doing its best to contain virus and anti-Chinese sentiment is not helpful, says PM Lee
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Sunday Times, 2 Feb 2020

China is doing all it can to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and Singapore's efforts will complement this, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

"We know that China is doing all it can to contain the spread of the virus. Singapore has been countering the novel coronavirus by isolating suspected cases and conducting contact tracing, once the cases are confirmed," he said in Mandarin.

"I have every confidence that we can overcome the challenge before us."

Speaking at the Chinese New Year dinner at his Teck Ghee constituency yesterday, PM Lee said that while Singapore was far better prepared to handle the threat than during Sars in 2003, China's response had also been more muscular.

"They have imposed their own travel restrictions on their end, including cancelling all outbound tour groups and bringing back Hubei residents from overseas," he said.

He pointed out that this was a much stronger response from China than when Sars broke out.

Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei in central China, has been identified as the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We have confidence that China and other countries will work together to win this battle," said PM Lee.

He 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.

He pointed out that a tour group from Singapore, comprising Singapore Chinese, had been turned away from a tourist attraction in Australia after they were mistaken as being from China, because of anti-Chinese sentiment.

"That is foolish and illogical," PM Lee said in Mandarin."Even though the virus started in Wuhan, it doesn't respect nationality or race. It does not check your passport before it goes into your body. Anybody can be infected," he said. "(The outbreak) is a problem that all countries must work together to solve."

"If... other countries failed to prevent the virus from spreading, and you have a big outbreak in another country, for example, somewhere in South-east Asia, then we will have a big problem in Singapore because we have so many travellers coming in and out of Singapore every day (from all over the world)," he said.

"If all that comes to a stop, I think the impact on us and our economy, on our livelihoods, will be quite severe, so we will work with other countries to fight the virus, to understand the disease, to prevent its spread," he added.

Singapore's enhanced travel measures that took effect from yesterday are pre-emptive and meant "purely to protect our public health", he added.

Wuhan virus: Visitors with recent travel history to China not allowed to enter or transit in Singapore from 11.59pm on Saturday, 1 February 2020
More steps to curb new imported cases as WHO declares public health emergency
By Chang Ai-Lien, Science and Health Editor and Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2020

All new visitors who have been in mainland China within the past 14 days will be barred from entry or transit in Singapore, as the nation ramps up measures to keep the Wuhan virus at bay. The new measures will kick in at 11.59pm today (1 Feb).

Also, the immigration authorities have suspended issuing new visas to Singapore - as well as transit passage through it - to those with China passports, with immediate effect. But Chinese passport holders who can show they have not been to China recently may be allowed entry, on a case-by-case basis.

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

"On top of all that we have already introduced over the past few days, (this) will enable us to limit the number of new imported cases here and to reduce risk of community spread in Singapore," he said at a news conference yesterday.

"The situation remains fluid, it is constantly changing, and we do not rule out taking further measures," added Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the spread of the Wuhan virus here.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said it would reject all new work pass applications for foreign workers from mainland China until further notice. Renewal applications for existing work pass holders will not be affected.

The tough new measures come on the heels of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) announcement on Thursday that the coronavirus epidemic in China now constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

The virus has infected more than 9,000 people - surpassing the over 8,000 infections at the time of SARS. The novel coronavirus has killed over 200, with China's Wuhan city at the epicentre of the crisis.

The WHO believes that it is still possible to interrupt the spread of the virus, provided countries put in place strong preparedness and response measures, and there has been increased action worldwide to limit global spread by restricting the entry of possible contacts and cases into other countries.

There is no community spread of the virus within Singapore, Mr Wong stressed, and the authorities are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of this happening. Limiting the number of new imported cases here is a key part of this effort.

As of yesterday, 16 people had tested positive for the virus in Singapore. Fifteen were Chinese nationals from Wuhan, while one was a Singaporean who was evacuated from Wuhan on Thursday.

The authorities will suspend issuing visas to those with China passports with immediate effect.

Immigration and Checkpoints Authority officers will also check the travel history of travellers to ensure that they have not been in China in the past 14 days. If they have, they will not be allowed entry.

Mr Wong emphasised that the policy had nothing to do with nationality. "It is not a nationality intent. The intent is with a view towards the virus outbreak in China itself, the risk that emanates from there and from any travellers who have recent travel history in China," he said.

The authorities acknowledged that the measures will have an impact on businesses and workers.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said last night that he will announce details to help those affected in the Budget statement on Feb 18. He will also share this weekend an outline of some of the key measures being planned.

WHO declares public health emergency, warns of virus spreading undetected
The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2020

GENEVA • The World Health Organisation, which declared the accelerating outbreak a global health emergency on Thursday, voiced fresh concern that the virus could spread undetected in a country with a weak health system.

The WHO's declaration - officially called a "public health emergency of international concern" - has been issued only five times since the relevant legislation took effect in 2007 - for swine flu, polio, Zika and twice for Ebola outbreaks in Africa.

The designation, reviewed every three months, allows the WHO to issue global recommendations that the international community is expected to follow. It does not have the force of law. Governments then make their own decisions about how they protect themselves.

The WHO stopped short of declaring an emergency last week because its emergency committee was divided over the issue.

The declaration "is not a vote of no-confidence in China", said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-general. "On the contrary, the WHO continues to have confidence in China's capacity to control the outbreak."

The declaration comes now, he said, because of fears that the coronavirus may reach countries with weak healthcare systems, where it could run amok, potentially infecting millions of people and killing thousands.

Declaring emergencies is always a hard decision, Dr Tedros had said. Border closings and flight cancellations may cause hardships for millions of healthy people near the epicentre as well as massive economic disruption. In the worst cases, supplies of food and medicine can run short and panic can spread, threatening to do more damage than the disease.

Borders should be kept open and people and trade flowing in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, although countries have a sovereign right to take measures to protect their citizens, the WHO added.

There is a "huge reason to keep official border crossings open" to prevent people from entering irregularly and going unchecked for symptoms, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a Geneva briefing.

"If travel restrictions would be imposed, we hope they are as short-lived as possible to try to continue the normal flow of life," he added.

Dr Tedros praised the Chinese government, saying that it "is setting a new standard for outbreak response". Other countries should be grateful that only 98 of the nearly 10,000 cases confirmed so far have occurred outside China's borders, he noted.

Dr Tedros, who met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday, said he was struck by how much Mr Xi knew about the outbreak and by the fact that Mr Ma Xiaowei, director of China's National Health Commission, was on the ground in Wuhan leading the response.

A WHO delegation was allowed to visit Wuhan for just one day.

Dr Gauden Galea, the organisation's representative in Beijing, said the visit was not intended "to pass judgment". "Everything is being done with a sense of intensity, and to our assessment, good practice," he added.


POFMA invoked against two fake posts on masks, Singaporean cases
By Clara Chong and Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2020

The prevalence of social media is one key difference between the current Wuhan virus outbreak and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Noting that rumours have been circulating on various channels about the novel coronavirus, he said he was very glad that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) is in place.

"Some of it, we know, is malicious and deliberate - people who are making up stories, people who are deliberately fomenting fear, uncertainty and doubt," he told reporters during a visit to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

"We have acted promptly against them using POFMA, and we are very diligent in putting out information as quickly as we get it, and as quickly as we can verify it, in order to make sure that people know what is the truth - what you need to worry about and what you should ignore."

The fake news law was invoked twice yesterday in relation to the Wuhan virus.

On Thursday, a website called AB-TC City News published an article that claimed five Singaporeans had contracted the Wuhan coronavirus without going to China. The article was subsequently shared by opposition party leader and lawyer Lim Tean as well as Facebook group Say No To PAP on their Facebook pages.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday instructed the POFMA Office to issue correction directions against AB-TC City News, Mr Lim and the Say No To PAP group.

In a statement, the POFMA Office said AB-TC City News will be required to carry a correction notice alongside its article. It noted that while Mr Lim and Say No To PAP have taken down their Facebook posts containing the falsehood, they will still have to carry a correction notice on their respective Facebook pages to ensure that people who had viewed their posts are informed of the facts.

In a separate case, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing yesterday instructed the POFMA Office to issue a correction direction against Mr Alex Tan and a targeted correction direction to Facebook over a post that Mr Tan made on his States Times Review Facebook page which falsely claimed that Singapore had run out of face masks.

Mr Tan, the founder and editor of States Times Review, was an opposition party member and is now an Australian citizen.

Yesterday's correction direction was the second to be issued against the States Times Review. In November last year, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam issued a correction direction against Mr Tan over a Nov 23 post on the States Times Review Facebook page about People's Action Party member Rachel Ong and a Nussu-NUS Students United Facebook post.

The Government also invoked the fake news law twice earlier this week to correct falsehoods about the Wuhan virus.

On Monday, SPH Magazines was asked to correct an online post on the HardwareZone forum that falsely claimed a man in Singapore had died from the Wuhan virus infection. The company, which had taken down the thread earlier in line with its community guidelines, also complied with the order.

On Tuesday, the Government invoked POFMA against Facebook to correct two posts that told people to avoid Woodlands MRT station, claiming a suspected case was discovered there. The posts, put up by different accounts, also falsely claimed the station was closed for disinfection.

The Government has also lifted temporary exemptions on general correction directions for a number of search engines and social media platforms, including Google, Baidu, Facebook and Twitter, with effect from yesterday.

A general correction direction can be issued to prescribed Internet intermediaries, telecoms and broadcast licensees, or newspapers, to get them to communicate a correction notice to all users in Singapore - not just the ones who access the falsehood - when a false statement has been conveyed and it is in the public interest to correct it.

Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran said yesterday that as the situation continues to evolve, the information flow will be fluid. "All the more we must all rely on trusted information sources and take a firm stand against those who spread falsehoods that cause anxiety and alarm, especially at a time of heightened concern in our society," he added.

Wuhan virus: Each Singapore household to get 4 free masks for contingencies
Sufficient supply of masks for all who need them, but people urged to use them responsibly
By Salma Khalik and Senior Health Correspondent and Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 31 Jan 2020

Amid the ongoing clamour for surgical masks, the authorities have said that Singapore has enough for those who need them and announced that all 1.3 million households in Singapore will be given four masks each.

But they also warned against the recent wave of panic buying that has seen these masks being snapped up and hoarded while governments globally try to contain the Wuhan virus.

"We will have sufficient supply of masks in Singapore, provided we all use them responsibly," National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday. He added: "You only wear a mask if you are not well and you have to go out to see a doctor. Those who are well do not need to wear a mask."

The move came on the same day that three new patients were announced, bringing the number of confirmed cases here to 13. All three are women and Chinese nationals from Wuhan.

The first is a 31-year-old who was a travelling companion of an earlier patient. The other two are a 73-year-old and a 37-year-old who arrived with their families on Jan 21 and Jan 22, respectively. The authorities have initiated contact tracing for all three cases.

It was also announced that about five million masks will be given out and will be made available progressively from 2pm tomorrow, at 89 community centres and 654 residents' committee centres. They should all be distributed by Feb 9.

The masks are free and can be collected only once for each household. Those collecting should have their identity card with them. The masks will be delivered to those who are vulnerable and cannot collect them.

Commenting on the move, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Facebook: "I understand your concerns and frustrations about not being able to get masks at retail stores, given the recent rush all over Singapore to buy them. Five million masks have been released to retailers in the past nine days, but demand has been higher than anticipated."

While the authorities stressed that there are enough masks here for those who need them, they are sourcing for new suppliers, amid a global shortage, and ramping up supplies from traditional suppliers.

Priority for masks will be for essential services, especially medical personnel.

The Singapore Armed Forces, which has been working round the clock to pack the masks, will work with the People's Association to distribute them.

Health experts have said that there is no community spread of the virus here, so there is no need for healthy people to wear masks.

The masks are being distributed as a contingency measure so that someone who falls sick can wear them to go out and see a doctor, therefore four masks per family should suffice, they said.

The authorities said that if several people fall sick within the same family, they can call for assistance and dedicated ambulances will be activated to help them.

Meanwhile, those trying to make a quick buck by selling masks at inflated prices will be taken to task.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry said it will question retailers, including online platforms which have been selling masks at marked-up prices to provide information on the cost price of their masks and their reasons for the high pricing.

If they are found to be profiteering, action can be taken against them under the Price Control Act, including fines and jail terms.

On Wednesday, online mall Qoo10 removed a listing that advertised 30 "anti-coronavirus" masks for sale at $10,000.

Singapore is also keeping a watch over its citizens in the epicentre of the outbreak. Yesterday, 92 Singaporeans from Wuhan returned home on a Scoot flight that had ferried Chinese nationals there.

Meanwhile, some Singaporeans who have shown signs of the virus will remain in Wuhan until it is safe for them to travel, said Mr Wong.

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