Tuesday 31 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 30 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 28 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers could also conduct lessons via "live" videos.

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

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

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

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

The Singapore Youth Festival Arts Presentation will also be cancelled.

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

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

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

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

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

Extraordinary measures for extraordinary times: Heng Swee Keat on COVID-19 stimulus package

This is an edited excerpt of the statement on the supplementary budget delivered by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday in Parliament, setting out why an additional budget is necessary. The $48 billion package includes wage support for workers and requires drawing up to $17 billion from past reserves, for which President Halimah Yacob has given her in-principle support.
The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2020

On Feb 18, just five weeks ago, I started my Budget 2020 speech setting out what we must do to combat the threats posed by the COVID-19 outbreak. At that time, there were 800 confirmed cases outside of China.

The outbreak has escalated quickly. Three weeks after my Budget speech, on March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, recognising the severity and risk of further global spread.

Today, the WHO estimates that the number of people infected has exceeded 410,000, across more than 190 countries.

The COVID-19 outbreak is a battle on many fronts - medical, economic and social.

First, on the medical front, countries are taking extraordinary measures to contain the spread of the virus, so that their healthcare systems are not overwhelmed. Many countries have implemented lockdowns, while the United States has declared a national emergency.

In Singapore, we are doing everything we can to keep you and your families safe. We acted early and decisively. As the severity of the virus outbreak grew worldwide, we stepped up our measures. This has, so far, helped to keep the number of cases at manageable levels during the first wave.

However, as much as we try, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to take at least a year to be resolved, and the economic repercussions would last even longer. The world is seeing successive waves of infection, and importation of infections. We must be prepared to take further tougher measures.

Yet, measures on the medical front to contain the pandemic, both in Singapore and around the world, have made the second front of the battle - the economic front - even more difficult. These public health measures have caused severe economic disruptions and uncertainties. As more countries implement their measures, the economic disruptions will be wider, deeper and more prolonged.

The global economy is now facing both a supply and demand shock.

On the supply side, supply chains have been disrupted as locked-down workers are unable to work. With highly integrated global supply chains, a disruption in any one part of the chain, or in any one country, will have knock-on effects worldwide.

On the demand side, aggregate demand has fallen as people stay home and curtail spending. Consumer and business confidence are plunging in the face of growing uncertainties.

The International Monetary Fund has downgraded its 2020 global growth forecast three times since January 2019, and flagged that a further downgrade is imminent in April. It added that it expects a recession at least as bad as during the 2008 global financial crisis.

Global financial markets are being roiled by the mounting uncertainties and cutback in economic activity. Stock markets have come down from their peak some weeks ago.

The S&P 500 index took only 22 trading days to fall by 30 per cent from its peak, making it the fastest drop of this magnitude in history. The key volatility indices in Europe and the US, which some call the "fear index", briefly reached levels last seen during the global financial crisis.

Credit has tightened across the world, and the US yield curve has fallen below 1 per cent for the first time in history. The disruptions around the world will significantly curtail global demand, disrupt supply chains, and possibly lead to financial shocks. As an open economy that is highly integrated with the global economy, we will be deeply impacted by these global shocks.

Based on advance gross domestic product (GDP) estimates released this morning, in the first quarter, the Singapore economy contracted by 10.6 per cent quarter on quarter, or 2.2 per cent year on year, reversing the 0.6 per cent growth in the previous quarter.

This morning, the Ministry of Trade and Industry further downgraded Singapore's GDP growth forecast for 2020, from a range of minus 0.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent announced last month, to between minus 4 per cent and minus 1 per cent.


This extraordinary situation calls for extraordinary measures.

Last month, I committed $6.4 billion in the Unity Budget towards the Stabilisation and Support Package, the Care and Support Package, and to support our front-line agencies.

Today, I will introduce measures worth over $48 billion in this Resilience Budget, to deal decisively with the situation at hand. This is over seven times of the first tranche.

Altogether, we are dedicating close to $55 billion to support our people in this battle, amounting to 11 per cent of our GDP. This is a landmark package, and a necessary response to a unique situation.

The Government has sought and obtained the President's in-principle support to draw up to $17 billion from our past reserves to fund part of the Resilience Budget.

Don't let social distancing become anti-social

Look out for the vulnerable and disabled among us in public spaces such as the MRT
By William Wan, Published The Straits Times, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2020

COVID-19 is the new normal now. At the start of this year, not many of us would have thought that in a short three months (it's not even April!), we would be subject to a public health pandemic worse than SARS, that the optimism of the new year would give way to prospects of a looming recession and anxieties over personal health. Terms such as telecommuting, split teams and social distancing are now on everyone's lips.

But as we get used to the new normal, we need to understand that even before the coronavirus reared its ugly head, life as per "normal" was already a challenge for some members of the community.

People who suffer from physical disabilities or visual impairment often need more care when navigating the streets and corners of Singapore.

Whether it is ramps and lifts for wheelchair users or tactile paving (those raised dots on footpaths, stairs, pedestrian crossings and train stations) for the blind, there is infrastructure in place to aid them. Nevertheless, a helping hand is always welcome, whether it is on the train or bus, or on pavements.

But now, in the time of COVID-19, when social distancing encourages us to be no closer than 1 metre of each other, how can we extend a hand to help when we can't even get near enough to touch?

Mr Chong Kwek Bin, who is in charge of advocacy at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), said: "The visually impaired typically need two types of help: information and taking them to some place."

Information such as bus service numbers can be provided without physical contact. But guiding them to a place, such as the toilet or to a seat or door, requires physical contact and cannot be done effectively otherwise.

Mr Chong told me that SAVH is concerned that this might lead to the general public becoming less willing to offer assistance.

Psychotherapist and social advocate Cassandra Chiu, who is blind and uses a guide dog, said: "Friends have shared in the last couple of days that when they ask for help, people are either very far away or do not respond to them.

"Social distancing is necessary given the current situation, of course, but it is posing a challenge to those who are blind or suffering from vision loss. This is because we do require a fair amount of help, especially those of us who don't have a guide dog."

Social distancing doesn't just affect those who are blind. And neither is its effects limited to those in Singapore.

Human rights advocate Catalina Devandas Aguilar, who is the World Health Organisation's (WHO) special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, warned on March 17 that across the world, little has been done to provide guidance and support to people with disabilities.

"People with disabilities feel they have been left behind," she said.

"Many people with disabilities depend on services that have been suspended and may not have enough money to stockpile food and medicine, or afford the extra cost of home deliveries."

Another WHO officer, Ms Lindsay Lee, who uses a wheelchair, explained in a Q&A session hosted on the WHO Twitter account that people with disabilities can suffer a higher risk of getting COVID-19. For example, some may have difficulties in implementing the additional hygiene practices needed, or be unable to practise social distancing because they need care or support.

She said: "These (difficulties) can be exacerbated in crisis situations."

COVID-19: Can a virus left on surfaces remain infectious after a few days?

Can't touch this...
Or can you? Presence of virus on surfaces may not mean it is infectious, say scientists
By Audrey Tan, Science and Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2020

A virus may be detectable on a surface days after a patient leaves behind traces, but this does not necessarily mean it is still infectious, experts say.

This is because most detection methods pick up the presence of the viral genetic material, which may linger for days even after the structure of the virus itself is broken.

An intact structure is needed for a virus to infect a host, such as a human, said Professor Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School.

"Currently, the only way we can detect (the presence of the virus) is through its nucleic acid material, and this may or may not mean that we still have a live virus," he told The Straits Times. "This is why hygiene is very important, because disinfectants and soap can get rid of live viruses that are transmissible."

His points clarify a study by the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was published earlier this week.

In the study, the CDC said the genetic material of the coronavirus could be detected on surfaces in the cabins of infected passengers on board a cruise ship for up to 17 days after cabins were vacated, but before disinfection procedures had been conducted.

Dr Michael Mina, a physician and assistant professor in immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, remarked on Twitter that the CDC findings did not show the virus causing COVID-19 could survive for more than 17 days on a surface.

"(It just shows) that the viral RNA is detectable for at least 17 days," he said. "That's like saying that detecting DNA on a piece of hair post-mortem means a person is alive."

Under a microscope, a coronavirus like the one causing the COVID-19 disease appears spherical, with a "crown" of spikes on its surface. In its centre, encased in a lipid membrane, is its genetic material: a single-strand RNA genome.

For it to infect its host, this structure has to be intact, said Prof Wang. Various measures, such as exposing the virus to heat or through the use of disinfectants, break this structure, rendering the virus impotent and incapable of infecting its host.

For instance, the spikes on the virus' surface are susceptible to being destroyed, or denatured, by heat or the sun's ultraviolet rays. When these spikes are destroyed, viruses lose their ability to latch on to a human host cell. Similarly, disinfectants and alcohol-based sanitiser help to make a virus unviable by breaking the membrane.

Prof Wang said current tests for the virus make use of a molecular biology process known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which helps to determine if the sample contains any detectable genetic material of the coronavirus.

He said: "The PCR test zooms into the genetic material. So we have to differentiate between a live virus, which has an intact structure, with its lipid membrane intact, that can transmit and cause disease, versus a situation where you have only a little bit of genetic material left."

He added: "In the latter, we can still get a PCR positive, but the virus is gone."

Friday 27 March 2020

$48 billion Resilience Budget 2020 to combat impact of COVID-19

Singapore Government pumps in $48 billion more to fight COVID-19 fallout, on top of $6.4 billion already announced at Budget 2020

Singapore is allocating nearly $55 billion, or about 11 per cent of its gross domestic product, to deal with challenges that have come in the wake of COVID-19

10,000 jobs to be created over a year, $800 a month to be given to those who lose job amid COVID-19 outbreak

Self-employed persons to get S$1,000 a month for nine months

Firms to get wage subsidies of up to 75% for local workers

Up to $900 cash help for Singaporeans amid coronavirus outbreak

Government freezes all fees and charges for a year till March 2021; student loan repayment and interest charges suspended for one year from June 1, 2020 to to May 31, 2021

3-month deferral of income tax payments for businesses, self-employed as part of COVID-19 support

Rental and property tax waivers and other help for businesses hit by COVID-19 pandemic

PM Lee and ministers to take three-month pay cut in solidarity with Singaporeans coping with coronavirus

$17 billion to be drawn from reserves for stimulus measures


Another $48.4 billion to weather 'mighty storm' caused by virus
President gives support to draw up to $17 billion from past reserves
Economic growth forecast for 2020 reduced to -4% to -1%
Support package comes as 52 new coronavirus cases are reported on 26 March 2020
By Royston Sim, Deputy News Editor (Politics), The Straits Times, 27 Mar 2020

Singapore will roll out a landmark $48.4 billion package to support businesses, workers and families as the country grapples with an unprecedented crisis fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic.

This is in addition to the $6.4 billion worth of measures it announced just over a month ago to cushion the fallout from COVID-19.

In all, Singapore has marshalled nearly $55 billion - 11 per cent of its gross domestic product - to respond to what Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat described as "the most serious crisis we have faced in a generation".

Unveiling the supplementary budget in Parliament yesterday, he said: "This is a landmark package and a necessary response to a unique situation." In economic terms alone, "this will likely be the worst economic contraction since (Singapore's) independence", he noted, as he sketched out the grim global economic outlook.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry yesterday slashed its 2020 growth forecast to a range of minus 4 per cent to minus 1 per cent, from an earlier estimate of minus 0.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent. Singapore last registered a full-year recession in 2001, when the economy contracted 1 per cent.

The pandemic, which has infected more than 410,000 people across more than 190 countries, is likely to take at least a year to be resolved and the economic repercussions would last even longer, Mr Heng said. "This extraordinary situation calls for extraordinary measures."

He said President Halimah Yacob has given her in-principle support to draw up to $17 billion from the past reserves to fund part of this "Resilience Budget". This is only the second time Singapore has drawn on its national reserves to fund special budget measures. It drew $4.9 billion in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

The $48.4 billion Resilience Budget amounts to nearly half of the Government's $106 billion Budget for this year. It is also more than double the $20.5 billion Resilience Package in the 2009 Budget.

It focuses on three areas, the first of which is to save jobs and protect livelihoods by taking "bolder and more aggressive moves".

In all, $15.1 billion will go to an enhanced Jobs Support Scheme to support 1.9 million local employees.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said the Government will co-fund 25 per cent of wages of every employed local worker under the scheme, up from 8 per cent.

The monthly wage cap will be raised from $3,600 to $4,600, while the payouts will cover nine months instead of the initial three.

Companies in sectors worst hit by COVID-19 - aviation and tourism - will get 75 per cent wage offsets for every employed local worker.

The $1.6 billion Care and Support Package will be boosted to $4.6 billion, with cash payouts for all adult Singaporeans tripled from a range of $100 to $300, to $300 to $900, depending on income.

Mr Heng also announced measures to help businesses overcome immediate challenges, from deferring income tax payments for companies and self-employed persons to enhancing property tax rebates and rental waivers.

Another $1.9 billion has been set aside to build resilience in Singapore's economy and society.

The $48.4 billion package will raise Singapore's overall Budget deficit for the 2020 financial year to a record $39.2 billion.

"Our prudence and discipline in saving and growing our reserves give us the wherewithal to respond decisively when our nation faces extraordinary circumstances," he said, calling the COVID-19 outbreak a "black swan event that comes only once every few decades".

The Government will keep monitoring the situation closely, and he is prepared to propose a further draw on reserves if necessary.

COVID-19 is a defining challenge - one that will test Singapore's social cohesion and psychological resilience, he said. The country yesterday reported 52 new coronavirus cases, taking the total to 683.

While people are understandably fearful, they must not surrender to fear or panic, Mr Heng said.

"The Government will take all the social and economic measures we need to keep our people safe, keep our economy growing and prepare ourselves for the recovery. Now, more than ever, we need Singaporeans to be strong and ride through these challenges together."

The Government will stand with Singaporeans from all walks of life to battle the crisis. "I am confident that together, we will ride through this storm and emerge even stronger," said Mr Heng, who received a standing ovation in Parliament.

Parliament will debate the measures when it next sits on April 6.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Government provides update in Parliament on Singapore's response to COVID-19

Coronavirus cases set to rise as more overseas Singaporeans return home

38,000 people on stay-home notice, figure will rise with more returnees

Ministerial Statements by Gan Kim Yong and Lawrence Wong outline strategy to curb spread of virus and urge all to adjust and do their part
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent and Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2020

The number of coronavirus cases will continue to rise in the coming weeks as some of the 200,000 overseas Singaporeans return home, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament yesterday.

Singapore has to plan on the basis that COVID-19 will be around for a long while, and people have to make adjustments and do their part to contain the outbreak, he added.

He and his colleague, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong - who was overcome with emotion while acknowledging the contributions of staff on the front lines - outlined the strategy to counter the outbreak.

The number of patients has more than doubled in the past week, from 266 to 558 on Tuesday. Said Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the outbreak: "Almost 80 per cent of these new cases were imported, all from countries other than China, even though we continued to see around 1,000 residents and long-term pass holders return from China in the past week."

The United Kingdom, the United States and Indonesia are the top three sources of imported cases.

Last night, the Ministry of Health announced a record 73 new cases, bringing the total to 631. Of the new cases, 38 were imported, and 27 linked to a cluster or previous cases.

As of yesterday, there have been more than 436,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide and over 19,600 deaths from the disease.

Mr Gan said Singapore has slowed the spread of COVID-19 by reducing importation, detecting and isolating cases early, and emphasising social responsibility and good personal hygiene habits.

All short-term visitors, including tourists, have been barred from entering or transiting since Tuesday, and Singaporeans have been advised to defer all travel until the global situation is under control. Border checks have also been strengthened to detect and isolate cases before they come into contact with the wider community.

Mr Gan noted that Singapore has also done around 39,000 tests for COVID-19 to date. This translates to 6,800 tests per million people here, compared with around 6,500 in South Korea and 1,000 in Taiwan.

These tests are key in detecting as many cases as possible and as early as possible, he said.

He noted that the World Health Organisation has said that the course of the pandemic can still be changed if all countries take the necessary containment actions.

"Otherwise, we will continue to see the number of affected countries and cases rise rapidly," he said.

Mr Wong, the multi-ministry task force co-chair, updated the House on border controls and other efforts to fight COVID-19.

Mr Wong noted that the number of cases globally was doubling every four to six days, and measures had to be rapidly updated to adjust.

Importantly, Singapore wants to focus its resources on the large numbers of citizens returning home amid lockdowns globally, he said.

About 1,200 Singaporeans return from the UK and US every day. There are now 38,000 people serving stay-home notices (SHNs), and their numbers will rise, he said.

Besides identifying those with symptoms at the airport, the Government is ramping up its capacity to test as many as possible.

But someone who tested negative at the point of entry may simply be incubating the virus, he said.

This is why it is key to isolate returnees, who must serve a 14-day SHN requiring them to remain in their residence, and avoid contact with others in the same household.

He noted that monitoring and enforcing these notices is a "huge operational and logistical undertaking", but the Government intends to continue with tough enforcement.

The rising number of locally transmitted cases, especially ones unlinked to earlier cases, also calls for a "whole range of additional public health measures to slow down the spread of the virus", said Mr Wong.

These include limiting gatherings outside of work and school to 10 people or fewer, suspending entertainment and religious gatherings, and imposing restrictions on malls and others for at least a month.

He noted these will be disruptive, saying it was a reality all countries face. "The more we try to stop or slow down the virus, the steeper the damage on our economies. We have to do what is necessary from the public health point of view first - to save lives, slow down the virus - and thereafter do our best to manage the economic consequences."

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will announce measures to help businesses and households in Parliament this afternoon.

Meanwhile, Mr Wong urged people to minimise non-essential activities and contact with others, saying Singapore is at a critical phase in the fight against the coronavirus.

Mr Wong teared up as he thanked the many front-line workers, from cleaners to those who cared for patients, calling them unsung heroes.

"We are only at the beginning of a very long fight," he said. "Let us rally together and rise to this challenge because as SG United, we can beat the virus together," he added.