Wednesday, 4 March 2020

COVID-19: Singapore to bar visitors from South Korea, north Italy and Iran from 4 March 2020; other travellers with symptoms may face nasal swab tests at checkpoints

By Rei Kurohi and Timothy Goh, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Singapore has expanded its entry restrictions to bar visitors who have travelled to South Korea, Iran or northern Italy within the past 14 days, as the fight against the spread of the coronavirus intensifies.

Apart from this, to keep imported cases at bay, all travellers entering the country who have a fever or other symptoms of respiratory illness may be required to undergo a COVID-19 swab test at the checkpoint.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced the enhanced measures yesterday, as he warned of the need to be ready for "new spikes" in cases here. The measures kick in today, 4 March, at 11.59pm.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministry panel fighting the virus, told reporters: "We have been monitoring the virus situation very closely and, as all of you know, it is spreading very quickly to countries everywhere. And, in Singapore, as a small, open city connected to the world, we face a higher risk of imported cases."

Before the ban on travellers from South Korea, northern Italy and Iran, there were similar restrictions in place for travellers from China and parts of South Korea.

With the ban, Singaporeans, residents and long-term pass holders who have been to these Covid-19-hit areas in the past 14 days will be allowed in, but will be issued a stay-home notice. Singaporeans have also been advised to defer non-essential travel to Iran, northern Italy, South Korea and Japan, where cases have spiked.

At checkpoints, travellers entering Singapore who have a fever or other symptoms of respiratory illness may be required to undergo a coronavirus swab test. They can carry on with their journeys in Singapore after undergoing the test, but will be advised not to mingle, as a precautionary measure.

The test results could take between three and six hours. Those who test positive will be taken to hospital in an ambulance.

Short-term visitors who refuse to undergo the test will be denied entry, said the Ministry of Health (MOH). Singapore permanent residents and long-term pass holders who refuse the test could have their passes and privileges revoked or shortened.

All travellers, including Singaporeans, who do not comply with testing may face penalties under the Infectious Diseases Act.

An MOH statement said the COVID-19 swab test kit deployed at checkpoints allows Singapore to test beyond persons who are referred to hospitals and extend testing to lower-risk symptomatic travellers as an added precaution.

This "further increases our likelihood of detecting imported cases at the point of entry", it said.

As with any test, a negative result does not completely rule out the possibility of infection. "As such, symptomatic travellers with a negative test result should continue to minimise social contact and seek medical attention should symptoms not improve over the next three days," it said.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, said: "Despite our very best efforts, we have to be mentally prepared for the number of infected cases in Singapore to go up. I think the experience so far these past few days in Singapore, where the number of cases rises by just a handful every day, we've become accustomed to it."

As of noon yesterday, Singapore has reported 110 confirmed cases, of which 78 have fully recovered and been discharged.

More than 92,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally, with more than 12,000 outside China. South Korea has over 5,100 cases, Italy over 2,000, Iran over 2,300 and Japan 283.

Travellers with symptoms face quick nasal swab test for the coronavirus on arrival in Singapore
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2020

Travellers to Singapore who have a fever or display signs of respiratory illness may need to undergo a nasal swab test for the coronavirus at all air, land and sea checkpoints, even if they do not meet the clinical definition of being suspect cases.

The samples - one from each nostril - will be couriered to the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) laboratory at Pasir Panjang Scanning Station as soon as they have been collected.

The lab, which will be staffed round the clock by a team of about 20 scientists, will test the sample. It can test up to 200 samples a day.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Home Affairs gave reporters a look at how new precautionary testing measures, which have been deployed at all checkpoints, will be implemented. They will apply to those entering Singapore, but not those who are transiting here.

When they arrive, travellers go through a temperature screening area, which is manned by healthcare assistants. Such screening areas have been progressively set up since January.

Those who have a fever or other symptoms of respiratory illness will be referred to a health screening station at the checkpoints, where they will be assessed by nurses or a doctor, and they may be asked about their travel history.

Anyone considered a clinical suspect - suffering from pneumonia or severe respiratory infection with breathlessness who has visited areas severely hit by the virus over the past 14 days before the onset of symptoms - will be referred to a hospital.

Even those not considered clinical suspect cases may be asked to undergo a Covid-19 swab test.

Once the swab test has been completed, the traveller can immediately carry on with his journey but is advised to minimise contact with others. He will be required to leave his contact details and will be informed of his test results. Those with positive results will be sent to hospital in an ambulance.

A Ministry of Health spokesman said that if someone leaves Singapore before receiving positive test results, MOH will obtain information on where he has travelled to.

"As per World Health Organisation regulations, MOH is obliged to inform relevant counterparts in other countries, who will commence contact tracing according to their jurisdiction."

The Covid-19 test kit deployed at all checkpoints is the result of a collaboration between HTX and Veredus Laboratories, a Singapore-based biotech firm, HTX said.

Development of the test kit started in January and was completed in about three weeks, said Ms May Ong, director of HTX's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Centre of Expertise. It has an accuracy of more than 99 per cent, and is able to test for a result in three hours.

"This kit has a different technological platform as compared with what is typically used in hospitals. This is meant to be a rapid screening process, as the responsibility of my team is to safeguard the border... so, we will typically use a faster method," said Ms Ong.

Other Covid-19 tests in hospitals may take six to 10 hours. This is because hospitals test not just for the presence of the virus, but also its severity.

As of noon yesterday, the HTX lab had conducted one test since the new measure kicked in on Wednesday night. It was not able to share details of the test results.

A new ban on the entry or transit in Singapore of travellers who have been to northern Italy, South Korea and Iran also kicked in at 11.59pm on Wednesday. As of 3pm yesterday, entry had been refused to one traveller with recent travel history to South Korea and two travellers with recent travel history to northern Italy.

Be mentally prepared for spike in coronavirus cases in Singapore, says Lawrence Wong
But measures such as border controls still useful in mitigating risk and impact of virus, he says
By Timothy Goh and Melissa Heng, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Singaporeans must be mentally prepared for a spike in coronavirus cases here, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force combating the spread of Covid-19 here, made these remarks after announcing a series of enhanced measures to keep the virus at bay.

These include barring entry to visitors with a history of recent travel to Iran, northern Italy and South Korea, as well as a swab test for visitors who are symptomatic at checkpoints.

The Health Ministry has also asked Singaporeans to defer non-essential travel to Iran, northern Italy, South Korea and Japan. These countries have seen spikes in cases.

In addition, the Ministry of Manpower said that from 11.59pm today, all work pass holders and their dependants with recent travel history to Iran, northern Italy and South Korea will have to obtain its approval before commencing their journey to Singapore, regardless of their nationality.

Upon arrival, they will be placed on a 14-day Stay-Home Notice.

Mr Wong said: "Despite our very best efforts, we have to be mentally prepared for the number of infected cases in Singapore to go up."

He noted that those here may have become accustomed to the number of cases in Singapore increasing by "just a handful" every day.

"But this may not be the norm, and it can change very easily. You see this in other countries too, where you have very few cases for a few days and then suddenly, one incident occurs... and there is a sharp spike in cases and sustained transmission. This has happened elsewhere; it can happen in Singapore too," he said.

He added that countries which do not report a lot of cases may still have undetected cases going around.

"We cannot stop it from happening. The only way to stop it is if you were to isolate and shut ourselves out from the world. But I don't think that is a tenable situation," he said.

Despite this, said Mr Wong, measures such as border controls still have their purpose at this stage.

"We can still identify where the sources of risk are, and we can take appropriate measures to reduce the risk from these infected sources.

"By doing so, we flatten the epidemic curve in Singapore. We buy ourselves time, and we avoid a situation where our hospitals get overwhelmed by a sudden surge of cases," said Mr Wong.

Singapore's tourism sector is expected to feel the crunch from the new travel restrictions, a spokesman for the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) told The Straits Times yesterday.

However, he added: "The association will monitor the situation closely with our travel agents, gather feedback and work with the relevant agencies to explore what kind of support can be provided."

Mr Samson Tan, chief executive of travel agency GTMC Travel, said the new restrictions will not heavily impact the travel sector, but only because it has already been very much affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Mr Tan, who is also a Natas executive committee member, said: "In the last few weeks, fewer Singaporeans are already travelling to South Korea. With this new advisory against travelling there, I think tour groups will probably stop going completely."

He added that although travel to Japan has eased by about 80 per cent in recent weeks, some Singaporeans are still willing to go to its southern parts, where fewer cases have been reported.

"Japan and South Korea are usually in the top five favourite destinations for Singaporeans, but now, travel sentiment is very bad overall."

Coronavirus: 4,500 stay-home notices issued by Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, including to those returning from South Korea's Daegu and Cheongdo
By Tee Zhuo, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

Immigration officers have issued over 4,500 stay-home notices as of yesterday morning, including to those returning from South Korea's Daegu city and Cheongdo county.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) said it had issued 4,535 such notices as of 8am. Those given the notice cannot leave their homes for 14 days.

ICA added that the notices were issued to Singapore residents and pass holders, including students and foreign workers, who had been to mainland China excluding Hubei province, Daegu or Cheongdo in the last 14 days.

Singapore extended stay-home notices for residents and pass holders, and barred visitors from the two South Korean locations from 11.59pm on Feb 26 after coronavirus cases there soared.

Restrictions were extended to the whole of South Korea, northern Italy and Iran after these countries experienced a spike in cases. The measures take effect at 11.59pm today.

Of the more than 4,800 cases in South Korea as of yesterday, nearly 90 per cent were in Daegu and the neighbouring province of North Gyeongsang. Over half were from the city's Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a fringe Christian group.

Separately, social assistance scheme ComCare has attended to 344 calls from people on mandatory stay-home notice as of Sunday, of which 10 people were referred to social service offices.

"Most calls were clarifications on the stay-home notice process, as well as general requests for assistance to buy groceries and household items," said a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman yesterday.

He added that all the 10 people referred to social service offices turned down financial help as they said they were financially stable.

MSF said that in cases referred to social service offices, whether they are on the stay-home notice or have been quarantined, social service staff will first contact the person to check if he requires financial or other forms of assistance.

If he requires support that is not financial, the office will liaise with the relevant government agencies to ensure that the person receives the necessary help, the spokesman said, for example, with buying groceries.

Citizens and permanent residents who need help during the stay-home period can call ComCare on 1800-222-0000.

Singaporean student opens up about Covid-19 racist attack in London
London police investigating coronavirus-linked attack on Singapore student
By Jean Iau, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

More shock than anger or fear.

That was what Singaporean student Jonathan Mok felt when he was jumped by a group of strangers in London in a coronavirus-related racist attack on Feb 24.

The 23-year-old final-year law student at the University College London opened up about his ordeal yesterday on Facebook and posted two photos of himself showing a swollen eye.

"I always felt that London is one of the most open places and this incident doesn't change the fact that most people are nice. It's just a few (who aren't)," Mr Mok told The Straits Times yesterday.

"But even with a minority of people (who engage in this behaviour), it is a very serious problem."

The attack happened in Oxford Street near the Tottenham Court Road train station at around 9.15pm, after he walked past a group of five young people, including a girl.

He turned around and looked at them after he heard one of them say "coronavirus".

The man then shouted, "Don't you dare look at me, you..." and punched Mr Mok in the face twice as passers-by tried to stop the group.

Mr Mok said that another man shouted, "I don't want your coronavirus in my country", before punching him in the face again.

The group fled before the police arrived.

The Metropolitan Police in London told The Straits Times that they are investigating a "racially aggravated assault" in which a 23-year-old man was "punched and sustained facial injuries", referring to Mr Mok without naming him.

During the attack, Mr Mok said people in a nearby souvenir shop came out to try to defuse the situation.

Since the attack, he has visited the shop to thank the people there. They gave him support and shared his sentiments about racism issues.

The Metropolitan Police said no arrest has been made, but they are currently trying to identify the suspects through inquiries and closed-circuit television footage.

They have been in touch with Mr Mok since the incident.

He was told at a hospital's accident and emergency department that he had fractures on his face and might have to undergo reconstructive surgery.

"I thought it was important to share and start the debate," Mr Mok said of his post, which has since garnered over 6,400 reactions and 23,000 shares.

"Race issues have been prevalent for so long and this shows how dangerous they can be... Even when they start off verbally, they can escalate to physical violence."

On Facebook, he wrote: "Racism is not stupidity - racism is hate. Racists constantly find excuses to expound their hatred - and in this current backdrop of the coronavirus, they've found yet another excuse."

Mr Mok said that the BBC and CNN contacted him for comment, while Singapore's High Commission in London contacted him to offer support.

Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore debunks singer Ronan Keating's claim that ships were turned away due to coronavirus outbreak
By Clara Chong, The Straits Times, 4 Mar 2020

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has debunked claims by Irish singer Ronan Keating, clarifying that no cargo ships have been turned away from the Republic's port due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The authority said on Monday on Instagram that no cargo vessels have been turned away due to the coronavirus.

Instead, ships arrive or leave Singapore every two to three minutes, and there can be about 1,000 ships at the port at any one time.

The authority also added that it has taken enhanced precautions, and it is "working round-the-clock to ensure that it is business as usual".

"#WeCouldntSayNothingAtAll," MPA added in its post, referring to Keating's hit song, When You Say Nothing At All.

Keating, who shot to prominence in the 1990s as a member of boy band Boyzone and has more than 330,000 followers on Instagram, shared on the platform on Sunday a photo of Singapore's port, showing about two dozen ships which he claimed were being held and unable to dock due to the virus.

The post, which received more than 7,000 likes, has since been removed.

The singer performed at an event in Jakarta on Saturday, but it is unclear if he was in Singapore.

Netizens praised MPA's response, which had nearly 100 comments yesterday evening, with some saying that Keating should have checked his facts before he posted anything.

One Instagram user with the handle @clareteo said: "It's ok to make mistakes, we all do at times. But it's not cool to just delete the post. A simple 'sorry' would be nice. However, I think we Singaporeans should be cool and magnanimous."

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