Saturday, 14 March 2020

Singapore takes more tough steps to curb spread of COVID-19

Border restrictions: From 15 March 2020, 2359 hours, all new visitors with recent travel history to France, Germany, Italy and Spain within the last 14 days will not be allowed entry into or transit through Singapore

Social distancing: Ticketed events with 250 participants or more to be deferred or cancelled to reduce the risk of local transmission
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent and Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2020

Singapore has introduced more stringent measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including banning travellers from four European countries and deferring or cancelling ticketed cultural, sports and entertainment events with 250 participants or more.

From 11.59pm, 15 March, visitors with recent travel history to Italy, France, Spain and Germany will not be allowed to visit or transit in Singapore.

Residents have been advised to cancel non-essential trips to these places, and those who have been to these countries within the past fortnight will have to remain in their homes for 14 days on their return.

These measures already apply to China, Iran and South Korea.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on the coronavirus, said yesterday that the threat of imported cases of COVID-19 remained "serious and imminent".

Of the 200 cases here, 56 were imported. Of these, 32 were identified in the past 11 days - among these, 15 had travel history to Europe, and six were from Indonesia.

He advised people not to travel to other countries that also had high numbers of COVID-19 infections.

Mr Gan suggested they also avoid countries that were reporting low figures but had exported cases, indicating that the virus was spreading within their borders, though those infected had not been picked up.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has listed eight countries to which non-essential travel should be avoided, and 10 for which people should exercise caution if travelling there, including Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Britain and the United States.

In addition, starting immediately, anyone entering Singapore with fever or symptoms of respiratory diseases would have to stay at home for 14 days, even if his swab tests prove negative for COVID-19.

This was because the person's infection might be in the incubation stage, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force, said: "You do not know whether later on, the viral load may go up, and that is why we want to take extra precautions and impose this full 14-day requirement."

Social distancing next major line of defence in virus battle
Cap of 250 people at ticketed cultural, social and sporting events, with seats 1 metre apart
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent and Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2020

Singapore is taking strong steps to stop the virus from spreading within the country, using social distancing as a major line of defence. This is on top of tougher measures to prevent infections being imported from elsewhere.

Restrictions will be put in place for large-scale social, cultural and sporting events.

To limit the occasions large crowds gather in close proximity over a prolonged duration, all ticketed cultural, sports and entertainment events with 250 participants or more are to be deferred or cancelled, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday.

For events that organisers are committed to, where they have sold tickets, for example, they must show that they have "satisfactory measures" in place in order to carry on with the events.

Large national events such as the May Day Rally and the National Day Parade may need to take on a different format, added National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19.

As for large private functions and religious services, the ministers said these should try to reduce the number of people attending to fewer than 250.

Other safety measures include larger venues to prevent crowding, preferably with participants sitting a metre apart from one another, better ventilation, not shaking hands and getting contact details in case someone at the function has the infection and everyone there needs to be contacted.

There should also be temperature and health screening as people enter. Those who are unwell should not be allowed in.

People who have been invited should also exercise social responsibility and not attend if they are feeling unwell.

There is no magic to the 250 figure. Mr Wong said organisers should look beyond that number and consider the capacity of the venue, the duration of the event, and the nature of the activity.

"It's more complex than a single number," he said. "But to put each of these principles into a simple guideline is difficult, at the end of the day scale does matter.

"If you have a 1,000 to 2,000 people event, it's very hard. There are not many large venues in Singapore. When we took all these into consideration, 250 is a good benchmark."

The purpose of social distancing, the Ministry of Health said, is "to limit large crowds gathering in close proximity over a prolonged duration".

The ministers also urged employers to reduce close contact of their employees by staggering work hours, having enough space between work stations, and tele-commuting or video-conferencing where possible.

If there are on-premises meetings, seats should be spaced apart.

So far, activities at community centres have been stopped for a fortnight, mosques are closed for five days and the Catholic Church is continuing its suspension of masses.

Precautions must also be taken at public venues.

Tourist attractions and entertainment venues such as casinos, cinemas, museums and theme parks should limit the number of visitors at any one time.

Similarly, indoor sports centres like gyms could limit the number of patrons and increase the frequency of cleaning.

Dining places should set their seats at least a metre apart.

At the press conference, the ministers were - for the first time - seated a metre apart, and reporters were put in staggered seats with a metre separating them.

Coronavirus outbreak: On holding events like NDP and whether schools will close
The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2020

Q: On what basis does the Government expect the outbreak to at least last till the end of the year?

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong: Judging from some feedback from our experts, including our director of medical services, it's likely to be at least up to the end of the year, or even longer - we really cannot tell. We cannot plan on the basis that this outbreak will be over by a certain period of time, because our plan must be sufficiently flexible to allow us to ensure that we are able to sustain many of the measures over the long term.

Q: What will happen to government events such as the May Day Rally, the National Day Parade (NDP) that usually have large crowds?

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong: I would imagine, for example, if there is a major speech event, a rally, you could potentially have more than one venue. Audiences can sit apart in a room that's not more than 250 (people) in size, and then you can have multiple venues and you can do a video streaming of the speech that's delivered. So I think event organisers, including government agencies planning for speeches and planning for events, will have to adjust accordingly.

Q: Why are we considering letting patients recover at home and not in hospitals?

Mr Gan: In terms of the capacity, what the Prime Minister said is that as we see more patients being infected, it is important for us to strategise our medical approach, focus on those who really need hospital care.

Even today, among our patients in hospital, most of them are doing very well, they do not require a lot of medical support.

Generally, global statistics show that about 80 per cent of patients have very light to mild symptoms, we just need to monitor them in case they deteriorate. And what is (important) is because the person is an infected patient, therefore isolation is critical.

MOH director of medical services Kenneth Mak: We do need to put in place measures such that even if they have diagnosis of COVID-19, there is no concern of risk of spread to other people in the community.

Q: Will Singapore close schools to limit the spread of the virus?

Mr Wong: The evidence on schools is not so clear at this stage.

Based on what experts have presented to the task force, it is quite unusual in this particular COVID-19 experience compared with the normal influenza season, where many children would be infected.

What is not clear is whether it's fewer because their symptoms are so mild that we are not picking them up, or whether it's because somehow this is different from the normal influenza and the children are not as prone to being infected for some reason which we don't quite understand yet.

We won't rule it out but we do need to get better clarity on the effectiveness of school closures and how this can potentially help to break or slow down the transmission chain before we decide on putting in place a measure like that.

Firms urged to stagger work hours, let staff work from home
By Toh Ting Wei and Lester Wong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2020

Employers should adopt telecommuting, stagger work hours and reduce close contact at work, where feasible.

These recommendations by the health and manpower ministries yesterday come amid new social distancing measures announced by the Government to combat the spread of the coronavirus, and follow the World Health Organisation's declaration of the outbreak as a pandemic on Wednesday.

"Employers should implement telecommuting and video conferencing where possible, as well as stagger work hours, and allow employees to commute at off-peak hours," the Ministry of Health said in an advisory.

In a separate advisory, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that special work-from-home arrangements should be made for vulnerable employees, such as those who are older, pregnant or have underlying medical conditions.

MOM noted that while there exist job roles or functions where working from home is not feasible, such as those involving front-line operations or fieldwork in construction sites, shipyards or factory plants, other arrangements could be made.

For example, it recommended that employers widen the space between individual work stations to at least 1m, and shorten meetings while limiting the number of attendees.

Workplace activities involving close and prolonged contact between participants that are not critical for business operations should also be deferred.

In suitable workplace settings such as those in the manufacturing sector, employers can consider deploying employees in shifts if such arrangements are not already in place, while extending operational hours to maintain production output, said MOM.

"Employers should consider clear separation of employees on different shifts, (by) implementing human traffic management measures and stepping up cleaning of common areas during shift changeovers," it added.

In a national address on Thursday, 12 March, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said additional social distancing measures, such as compulsory telecommuting, will be introduced should there be a spike in COVID-19 cases in Singapore.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force combating the spread of the virus here, said yesterday that such additional measures within Singapore were needed, in addition to the extra restrictions rolled out at Singapore's borders.

From 11.59pm tomorrow, all new visitors who have been to Italy, France, Spain and Germany within the past 14 days will not be allowed entry or transit.

This is on top of previous restrictions announced for travellers coming from China, Iran and South Korea.

Mr Wong said: "We know the virus is already circulating within our own population, and we have to do more to contain or to slow down the spread of the virus within Singapore itself."

All Singapore mosques shut for cleaning for 5 days from 13 - 17 March; Friday prayers suspended
Two Singaporeans at religious event in Malaysia infected
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2020

All 70 mosques in Singapore will be closed for five days for a thorough cleaning, starting today.

Consequently, today's Friday prayers will be suspended, said the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) yesterday.

The move is a preventive measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus following the infection of two Singaporeans who attended a mass religious gathering in Selangor, Malaysia. About 90 Singaporeans had attended the gathering late last month, and some are frequent congregants at several mosques here.

MUIS added that the closure of all mosques is aimed at preventing the emergence of a cluster of COVID-19 cases.

Four are already closed for cleaning: Jamae Chulia in South Bridge Road, Al Muttaqin in Ang Mo Kio, Hajjah Fatimah in Beach Road and Kassim in Changi Road.

At a press conference yesterday, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the four were mosques that a confirmed coronavirus case had visited, on his return from the Selangor gathering.

Mr Masagos, who is also Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said the decision to close all mosques in Singapore was made to protect the community, especially elderly worshippers who are more vulnerable. "We need to protect ourselves, our community and our loved ones. And more so knowing the impact, the effects, of COVID-19 on seniors and the elderly," he said.

"Many of the people who come to the mosque are retired, senior people. Therefore, we think it's important - at the moment - to prevent such big congregations in our mosques."

MUIS added that all mosque activities, such as lectures and religious classes, will be cancelled till March 27. A review will be done on Monday on the state of hygiene and cleanliness at the mosques before they are reopened.

MUIS said communal activities, like congregational prayers, may expose mosque-goers to the virus from individuals who may not know they are infected.

The fatwa committee, which gives religious guidance to Muslims here, has allowed the closing of the mosques and suspension of Friday prayers in the interest of public health and safety.

Said its chairman, Singapore Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir: "The fatwa committee has looked at this from many angles and has issued a fatwa to allow for the closure of mosques, as well as the suspension of congregational prayers, daily prayers and including Friday prayers, where the need arises (and) when it is very important for us to continue to protect society and protect the vulnerable."

MUIS added: "Muslims should perform their regular noon (zuhur) prayers in place of the congregational prayers." It also said that in place of the regular Friday sermon, online messages on religious guidance will be available.

At the press conference, Mr Masagos gave the assurance that Singapore will continue to do what is best for Singaporeans. "We should follow what we need for Singapore, and Singaporeans. We're not just protecting Muslims. We're protecting the nation," he added.

In a Facebook post last night, President Halimah Yacob said she was sure MUIS did not make the decision lightly. "It is important that we take the necessary precautions, such as implementing additional social distancing measures, to slow down any transmission of the virus," she said.

She added that she would also like MUIS to consider different scenarios that may play out during the month of Ramadan, which is just over a month away, and plan what measures may need to be implemented.

Closure of mosques helps to curb spread of coronavirus and protect Singaporeans: Janil Puthucheary
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2020

The closure of mosques in Singapore addresses immediate issues to curb the spread of the coronavirus, said Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Transport Janil Puthucheary.

He added that the move, which started yesterday, would help protect Singaporeans as well as healthcare institutions.

Speaking to reporters yesterday on the sidelines of a Muslim community workgroup meeting which he was co-chairing, Dr Janil said: "Some of the issues are very immediate, to try to break the cycle of transmission from one person to the next.

"This is really very important because we have to protect our critical healthcare infrastructure and reduce the number of cases multiplying."

For the first time in Singapore's history, all 70 mosques islandwide were closed yesterday and congregational prayers cancelled to allow them to be cleaned further to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

This came after two Singaporeans who attended a mass religious gathering in Selangor late last month were infected. About 90 Singaporeans had attended the gathering, and some are frequent congregants at different mosques here.

Yesterday, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said the community workgroup that Dr Janil is part of was convened by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli in response to the COVID-19 situation.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health Amrin Amin is also in the 18-member group, which includes medical professionals and religious leaders.

"The group will actively support engagement efforts in disseminating religious guidance and health advisories to the Muslim community," said MUIS.

On Thursday, MUIS said that the closure of all mosques is aimed at preventing the emergence of a cluster of COVID-19 cases.

It added that all mosque activities, such as lectures and religious classes, will be cancelled till March 27. A review will be done next Monday on the state of hygiene and cleanliness at mosques before they are reopened.

MUIS said communal activities, such as congregational prayers, may expose mosque goers to the virus from individuals who may not know that they are infected.

Despite the closure, some worshippers still gathered outside a few mosques for prayers yesterday. They were not allowed in.

Notices about the closure were placed outside mosques such as the Sultan Mosque in the Bugis area and the Hasanah Mosque in Teban Gardens.

Mosques such as the An-Nur Mosque in Marsiling stationed staff outside their premises to explain the reasons for the closure.

The fatwa committee, which gives religious guidance to Muslims here, has approved the closure and suspension of Friday prayers in the interest of public health and safety.

Its chairman, Singapore Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, posted on his Instagram account on Thursday that the decision was not easy, nor something that MUIS had hoped to do, but it was a necessary move.

"Play your part in protecting society and we shall be strong together as one," he wrote.

Contact tracing being done for 90 Singaporeans who were at mass religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2020

The Ministry of Health is conducting contact tracing for about 90 Singaporeans who were at a mass religious gathering on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, after two of them were infected with the coronavirus.

The first is a 29-year-old man who was in Malaysia from Feb 29 to March 4, and the second is a 48-year-old man who was in Malaysia from Feb 28 to March 2.

Both were confirmed to have the COVID-19 infection yesterday morning, and identified as cases 183 and 187 respectively. They are warded in isolation rooms at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said at a press conference yesterday that the Singaporeans who were at the gathering were not affiliated to a particular mosque or group and probably knew one another only socially.

One person in the group became sick a few days after returning here and sought medical attention on Monday, Mr Masagos said.

"In between arriving in Singapore and getting medical attention, he also performed duties of an officer of a mosque and in that process visited four mosques," said Mr Masagos, without giving further details.

As for the other person, he said: "We are still tracing his movements for the last few days."

The gathering was held at the Seri Petaling mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur from Feb 27 to March 1, and reportedly involved up to 10,000 people from several countries who are devotees of the Tablighi Jama'at movement.

The Muslim missionary movement started in India in the late 1920s and is known as Jemaah Tabligh in Malaysia and Singapore.

While not much is known about its funding and structure, it is understood that there are millions of members worldwide. They believe Muslims should replicate closely the life of Prophet Muhammad, including in dress and conduct, and follow certain practices like the "chela", a 40-day annual preaching tour.

A photo of a noticeboard at the Seri Petaling mosque showing the number of foreign participants at the gathering listed 95 Singaporeans; the Singapore authorities believe the actual number is about 90.

The noticeboard also indicated that there were more than 1,500 foreign participants at the gathering, including 696 from Indonesia, 215 from the Philippines, 132 from Thailand, 130 from Vietnam, 79 from Cambodia and 74 from Brunei.

Brunei's Health Ministry said that as of yesterday, all but one of the 25 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the country were linked to the gathering. The 25th case had travelled to Malaysia and Cambodia.

The Malaysian authorities are also tracking the Malaysians who had attended the event, and encouraging them to report to the health authorities in their respective states to be tested for COVID-19 infection.

Catholic Church to continue suspension of masses
By Clara Chong, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2020

A week after the Catholic Church said it would be resuming masses starting tomorrow, Archbishop of Singapore William Goh said yesterday that public masses for Catholics here will remain suspended to minimise the risk of coronavirus spread.

In a letter to Catholics posted on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore's website, Archbishop Goh said that with the outbreak being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, and coupled with the rising number of infections, masses this weekend will have to remain suspended.

Masses, which were first suspended on Feb 15, will be resumed when the situation has improved and stabilised, he said.

"When I made the announcement to lift the suspension last Thursday, it was in the context of a stabilised situation," said the Archbishop, who noted that since then, the global situation has become more serious and infections are rising.

"We are not helping the situation if we resume masses at this time, simply because of the sheer numbers of Catholics packing in each service, and their fluidity in moving from one parish to another, and attending different services.

"Furthermore, a large percentage of our parishioners belong to a vulnerable group - seniors with lower immunity," he added.

"As responsible Catholics, we should be mindful that we do not do anything that might further burden the already strained healthcare system," Archbishop Goh said.

He acknowledged that this was a decision that would not please all, but said that as head of the Catholic Church in Singapore, he had to decide for the common good. "Should anything untoward happen, it would be too late to regret," he said.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Malaysia will also be suspending all weekend and weekday public masses from today to March 29, a pastoral letter from the Catholic bishops in Malaysia said yesterday.

All catechism classes will also be closed, and programmes and activities will be cancelled during this period. Meetings and other events will also be cancelled or put on hold.

Important to keep healthcare workers safe during outbreak, says President Halimah
By Amrita Kaur, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2020

Singaporeans must not underestimate the importance of keeping the nation's healthcare staff safe during the coronavirus outbreak, President Halimah Yacob said yesterday.

She said she found during her visits to primary, critical and community care facilities that this emphasis on safety had made healthcare staff feel more confident.

Madam Halimah was speaking to reporters during a visit to the Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens in Serangoon Garden Way.

She had previously visited the Ang Mo Kio Family Medicine Clinic on Feb 24 and the Singapore General Hospital on March 1 to speak to healthcare workers in the battle against the coronavirus outbreak.

The common thread in all three sectors, she said, was that the "spirit is still very high" and that "they know they're being supported".

Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens staff nurse Maurice Marie Salinas Vera, 34, said: "We follow the guidelines by the Ministry of Health very closely and remind the residents often to practise good personal hygiene such as washing their hands with soap. We do our best to raise everyone's awareness during such a situation."

The home has suspended all outdoor activities and is conducting exercises only in small groups within the premises.

Commenting on the two-week suspension of senior-centric activities organised by government agencies from Wednesday, President Halimah encouraged family members to step in to spend time with seniors during this period.

"There are a lot of activities family members can do to keep them engaged at home. They can do drawing, colouring and jigsaw puzzles."

She also urged Singaporeans to be socially responsible and continue to practise good hygiene. "This will help in containment and help to prevent transmission," she said.

Besides healthcare workers, President Halimah also interacted with residents at the nursing home and watched a music performance put up by them.

* All Singapore mosques to remain closed until 26 March 2020
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2020

All mosques in Singapore will continue to remain closed until March 26, in a move to prevent the coronavirus from spreading any further in religious institutions in the country.

The extension of the closure of all 70 mosques was announced yesterday by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

This means that until Thursday next week, congregational prayers such as the five daily prayers as well as Friday prayers on March 20 will not be held at mosques.

They will, however, resume the call to prayers today and will produce more online content to continue guiding the community.

All the mosques were closed last Friday for cleaning after an infected group visited some of them.

When they reopen later this month, Muis said enhanced measures will be implemented to keep the virus at bay.

These include mandatory non-contact temperature-taking of congregants, turning away those who are unwell and requiring congregants to bring their own prayer mats.

At a press conference yesterday, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said mosques here will also pilot a new system of holding two sessions, not one, for congregational Friday prayers.

This will start in four mosques: Maarof mosque in Jurong West, Mujahidin mosque in Queenstown, Muhajirin mosque in Bishan and An-Nur mosque in Woodlands.

"We want to practise this in four mosques first. As we learn how to operationalise this, we will do it in more mosques," he said.

Mr Masagos, who is also Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said all prayers and other mosque activities will have to adhere to a 30-minute limit and congregants will be spaced out farther from one another.

Contact tracing will also be introduced in mosques which will keep a record of congregants who visit, he added. Muis is exploring technological solutions on how to do this.

Muis explained that the decision to extend the duration of the mosque closures came after more Singaporeans were infected with the virus after they attended a religious gathering with 16,000 people at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

The council had earlier stated that communal activities like congregational prayers may expose congregants to transmission of the virus by individuals who may not know they are infected.

At least five Singaporeans who went for the mass gathering between Feb 27 and March 1 are confirmed cases, including one mosque employee, and they had visited 10 mosques while they were infectious.

Yesterday, Mr Masagos said 101 Singaporeans have hitherto been identified as having attended the gathering in Malaysia.

But even with the current measures in place, Muis said it is possible for more cases to emerge through secondary transmission.

Also, it is not possible to identify and trace everyone who visited the 10 mosques as they do not operate on a membership system and lack a register of congregants, said a Muis spokesman.

This means contact tracing will not be a sufficient measure to prevent onward transmission of the virus, the spokesman added.

Muis said that following consultation with the Ministry of Health (MOH), it is of the view that the risk of a large cluster forming, from among the participants of the large gathering in Malaysia, persists.

The extension of the closure of mosques until March 26 completes one incubation period of the coronavirus to break the cycle of transmission, Muis added.

Last Thursday, Muis had announced the initial five-day closure as a preventive measure against the spread of the virus.

Yesterday, Mr Masagos said members of the Muslim community here have been "quite overwhelming" in their support of the move to close the mosques.

"They understand... (and) know why we're doing this," he said.

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