Wednesday, 10 June 2020

National Broadcast: Lawrence Wong on living with COVID-19

Virus may be here for the long haul so Singapore must adapt: National Development Minister Lawrence Wong
Business models and building designs may have to be rethought
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2020

Singapore needs to be prepared for more challenging times ahead and steel itself to live with the coronavirus for the long term, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

"It is not likely that the virus will go away," said Mr Wong, who spelt out how Singapore was trying to keep a lid on new infections in the days ahead. He also flagged some changes that may be needed further down the road.

Urban planners, businesses and workers may all have to adapt to a new normal, he said.

"We have to be realistic and gird ourselves for more challenging times," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling COVID-19. "Our population will be vulnerable for a long time, in a world where COVID-19 is all around us. We must therefore adapt to COVID-19, and learn to live with it over the long term."


Mr Wong was delivering the second of six national broadcasts by Cabinet ministers on Singapore's post-coronavirus future. He highlighted how the virus has changed daily life here, and how Singaporeans are staying safe.


The pandemic has precipitated a shift towards flexible work arrangements, he said. These include working from home, staggered work hours and split-team arrangements.




Urban planning must cater to these demands and building designs will have to change, given what is now known about the risk of transmission in enclosed spaces.


"We will need to improve ventilation and air filtering inside buildings," he said. "Other features like contactless fittings, automatic doors, as well as hand sanitiser and temperature monitoring stations should also become part of the norm."


Businesses will also need to find new and safer ways to deliver their products and services, Mr Wong said. Hawkers and wet market stallholders are among many who have embraced digital solutions, such as using online platforms to reach new customers.


Also, significant changes will have to be made in the construction industry, where major outbreaks occurred, he said. Workers will be tested regularly, work sites will implement new safeguards, and new dormitories will be built.


All this will mean extra costs, Mr Wong said. "I have no doubt that this will be a very difficult transition. But I assure everyone in the industry that we will work closely with you to get through this difficult patch, and to emerge stronger from this experience."


In the longer term, an important part of the solution is a vaccine, Mr Wong said, adding that Singapore is part of the "massive global effort" to develop an effective vaccine.


If and when a vaccine becomes available, we will make sure that every Singaporean who needs it gets it, and at an affordable price," he said.




Singapore is one week into the first phase of reopening after the circuit breaker. It reported 218 new cases yesterday, 9 June, the lowest daily number since April 11.


"We will continue to monitor the situation over the coming week," said Mr Wong. If the virus situation remains stable, the country will move into the second phase before the end of this month. More social activities will then be allowed, with most businesses resuming regular operations.


Mr Wong called for people to continue being socially responsible by wearing their masks, observing safe distancing measures and upholding good personal hygiene.


These were steps that anyone could take to protect themselves and their loved ones, he said.


On their part, he said, the authorities had increased the capacity and speed of contact tracing. They had also expanded testing capacity hugely. These would help control the spread of the virus.


He added: "It has been a tough fight against a formidable and invisible enemy."




The country has shown its grit and adaptability during the circuit breaker period, Mr Wong said. "We must continue to demonstrate the same ingenuity and resourcefulness in this new phase."

He lauded the efforts of the many individuals and businesses that have gone the extra mile for others, such as by volunteering at dormitories or donating supplies to those in need. "We have found strength and confidence in one another. We have shown that we are capable of rising above ourselves and caring for others," he said.















Vaccine will be made available to all Singaporeans who need it
Minister gives assurance that those who need it will get vaccine, and at an affordable price
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2020

Every Singaporean who needs it will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine should one become available, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

Outlining Singapore's strategy to control the spread of the coronavirus in a national broadcast, he pledged that if and when a vaccine is ready, "we will make sure that every Singaporean who needs it gets it, and at an affordable price".

Mr Wong said that a vaccine is an important part of the long-term solution to the crisis.

Singapore, which has a pharmaceutical industry and research capabilities in biomedical science, is involved in a "massive global effort" to develop a vaccine, said the minister, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic.



There are now at least 130 vaccine candidates being developed globally, including in Singapore.

Duke-NUS Medical School is working with US firm Arcturus Therapeutics on a vaccine, which involves getting the human body to produce part of Sars-CoV-2, the name of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Home-grown contract development manufacturer Esco Aster is also working with US firm Vivaldi Biosciences on a COVID-19 chimeric vaccine - one that is made by merging proteins from different viruses.

The Economic Development Board is also in talks with pharmaceutical companies on manufacturing vaccines in Singapore, said Mr Wong.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore is building up vaccine manufacturing capacity so that production can be ramped up quickly and safely once a COVID-19 vaccine is found.



Mr Wong added that in parallel to these efforts, clinicians and researchers around the world, including teams from Singapore, are working hard to develop drugs and other therapies to reduce the severity of the disease.

"But drug and vaccine development is very challenging work," Mr Wong warned. There is no guarantee the drugs currently undergoing clinical trials will be effective, he said.

And despite the intensive international efforts at developing a vaccine, it will also take a long time for any vaccine to be ready and available for mass distribution.

"We have to be realistic and gird ourselves for more challenging times," said Mr Wong, noting that the Singapore population will remain vulnerable to the coronavirus for a long time.

"We must therefore adapt to COVID-19, and learn to live with it over the long term. This does not depend upon government actions alone. Every one of us - government, businesses and individuals - must do our part," he said.



He appealed to Singaporeans to remain disciplined and vigilant, and continue to practise social responsibility in observing good personal hygiene and safe distancing measures, including avoiding big gatherings and crowded places.

"Collectively, these actions will make all the difference in keeping COVID-19 at bay. They will enable us to have a safe and sustainable reopening, as we have seen in countries like Denmark and New Zealand," said Mr Wong.

"Conversely, if we are lax in our personal precautions, new cases and new clusters will multiply quickly, and despite our best efforts to test and trace, we might end up in another circuit breaker down the road. So please cooperate with the restrictions, and keep everyone safe."








Singaporeans' ingenuity, resourcefulness needed in new phase of COVID-19 crisis
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2020

Singaporeans have shown their grit, adaptability and resilience during the two-month circuit breaker period.

And as Singapore prepares to re-open the economy, they will need to continue to show the same ingenuity and resourcefulness in this new phase, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

In a national television broadcast yesterday, he said: "In these difficult times, we have not despaired. We have not given up.

"Instead, adversity has brought out the best in us - both individually and collectively. We have found strength and confidence in one another. We have shown that we are capable of rising above ourselves and caring for others."

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the outbreak, said Singaporeans have also found "new and creative" ways of staying connected - for instance, through virtual meals, online classes and tuning in online to sermons on livestreams.

He said: "We may not be able to travel or have large gatherings any time soon. But we are going on virtual tours, enjoying online concerts, and learning new skills through online classes.

"And many of us continue to draw strength from our faiths, thanks to churches, mosques and temples livestreaming their sermons and services to their followers."

Mr Wong's speech - the second in an ongoing series of TV broadcasts by six ministers - focused on measures being taken to control the spread of the virus, and how COVID-19 will change the way people live and work.

In a TV broadcast on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about how Singapore will need to strengthen its social compact, and think about ways to improve social safety nets to help people cope with the uncertainties posed by the coronavirus crisis.

More than 38,000 people in Singapore have been infected with the coronavirus. After the circuit breaker period ended a week ago, Singapore is starting to reopen the economy in three phases.

Mr Wong, in his speech, said businesses, too, have been coming forward to help, donating masks and supplies to those in need and contributing to front-line COVID-19 operations. He said: "This is the Singapore spirit that gives us the confidence to press ahead, no matter how tough the odds. The road ahead is unpredictable, and countries everywhere are continuing to search for answers and solutions.

"There is no guaranteed formula for success. But it is our grit and resilience, our compassion and kindness, our cohesion and strength that will see us through this crisis of our generation."









Controlling spread of virus by boosting testing, contact tracing
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2020

Aggressive testing and contact tracing will improve Singapore's ability to control the spread of the coronavirus and gradually reopen the economy, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, noting that the authorities had spent the circuit breaker period boosting their abilities to do both.

Giving an overview of Singapore's battle with the coronavirus so far, Mr Wong yesterday said efforts have been made to make contact tracing faster, and scale up testing capacity - including testing wastewater for viral fragments, to tell if a specific group has infected people among them.

Still, he stressed that the Government needed to be very cautious in its reopening as the "vast majority of our population have not been exposed to the virus and are still vulnerable to the disease".

On contact tracing, he said the process has been sped up - for example, by expanding contact tracing teams to include personnel from the police and Singapore Armed Forces. He also pointed to technology such as the SafeEntry check-in/check-out system, the TraceTogether app as well as wearable Bluetooth devices that are being developed.

"These will work on their own without the need for a phone. You can conveniently wear or carry them around as you go about your daily activities," he said of the devices.



Meanwhile, the Government is procuring more test kits, increasing lab capacity, and recruiting and training more people to carry out swabs and take blood samples.

"In early April, we were doing about 2,000 tests a day. Now, we are able to conduct about 13,000 tests a day, and we are on track to reach 40,000 tests a day in the coming months," said Mr Wong.

He described this expanded testing capacity as "critical".

"It means that we can test higher-risk groups more extensively. We can also do more surveillance testing in the community, including those with respiratory symptoms. This will give us a faster and more accurate sense of the number of cases circulating undetected."

The authorities are also using other methods of detection, he said. "For example, we are extracting wastewater from manholes to test for viral fragments. This provides an additional indicator to tell us if a specific group, such as those living in a dormitory, have infected people amongst them.

"We are also using serology tests. These help to identify those who were previously infected but may have since recovered, and have developed antibodies in response that can help them fight the virus."



Throughout the battle with the virus, he said Singapore was determined to avoid a situation where its healthcare system became overwhelmed.

"COVID-19 is the most serious health crisis the world has faced in a century. We have all seen the devastating effects of the virus worldwide. When the outbreak gets out of control, the spike in cases can quickly overwhelm the healthcare system. Many people will not get the care they need, and the number of deaths will rise sharply," said Mr Wong in a national broadcast recorded from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

"Working together, we've stabilised the situation in the migrant worker dormitories. We've brought down community cases significantly. We've protected our seniors, and kept our fatality rates low."

More than 38,000 people in Singapore have been infected with the coronavirus. Many new cases are reported daily, the majority of whom are foreign workers linked to dormitories. Yesterday, the country reported 218 new cases - the lowest since April 11.

Yesterday, Mr Wong also reiterated a point he has made several times before, that Singapore is not going back to life before the circuit breaker even as it gradually reopens.

If conditions seem stable, Singapore might move into phase two before the end of the month. This would see a broader range of activities being resumed, covering nearly the whole economy. Social interactions and family visits in groups of up to five people would also be allowed.

"Externally, we are carefully easing travel restrictions and reopening our borders, by creating 'green lanes' with selected countries. These arrangements will be limited to essential travel for work reasons, and tight controls will be put in place. When conditions permit, we will extend 'green lanes' to more countries, and to non-business travellers."

He added: "But it will take a while before we see international air travel recovering in a significant way, or before we can open up for mass market travel."

As more activities resume, Singaporeans should be "mentally prepared" to see more new cases, said Mr Wong, noting that this happened in other countries emerging from their lockdowns.

"The key is whether we are able to keep community infection rates stable. If so, we can continue on the path of progressive easing."








Construction sector faces tough transition, but help will be at hand
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2020

The construction sector will need to institute new safeguards at worksites and continue its push for automation and productivity to reduce its reliance on foreign workers in the wake of COVID-19, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

Noting that the sector was a "key vulnerability" in the pandemic, Mr Wong outlined a slew of changes that will need to take place.

For instance, workers in construction, who have accounted for a substantial number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore so far, will have to be tested regularly and comprehensively, said Mr Wong.

"We will also need to review and improve living arrangements for migrant workers."



Commenting on the coronavirus situation in migrant workers' dormitories, which have seen major outbreaks over the past few months, Mr Wong said that the outbreaks occurred despite improvements made to the dormitories over the past decade, and precautions that had been taken.

The Government will tighten the safeguards and build new dormitories designed to be more resilient against infection risks, he added.

Earlier this month, the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force announced that it will be building new Quick Build Dormitories, which can be assembled within a few months and last for two to three years.

They will serve as a test bed for the Government to pilot improved standards for dormitories before it decides on specifications for new permanent dormitories.

Five workers will share a set of toilet facilities, compared with 15 under current rules.

There will also be a maximum of 10 beds per room, with at least 1m of spacing between them.

A typical dorm today has 12 to 16 workers in each room.

But Singapore has to be mindful that infection risks will remain, cautioned Mr Wong, due to the large number of workers living together and sharing communal facilities.

In fact, he said, all communal living spaces, including nursing homes or cruise ships, will always be at risk in the event of an infectious disease outbreak.

He noted that the changes required are significant and will mean extra costs for the industry, though he gave his assurance that the Government will be introducing new measures to cushion the financial impact of these safeguards, and to help move the industry to new productivity levels.

This support comes on top of short-term costs that will be borne by the Government through the Fortitude Budget.

Mr Wong also acknowledged that this transition towards new modes of working and living, including reducing the industry's reliance on migrant workers, will be a difficult one for the construction sector.

"I assure everyone in the industry that we will work closely with you to get through this difficult patch, and to emerge stronger from this experience," he said.









The road ahead as Singapore adapts to living with COVID-19
The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2020

This is the transcript of a national broadcast by National Development Minister and Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on what Singapore needs to do as it eases into the new normal of a world changed by COVID-19. The broadcast is the second in a series of six by ministers scheduled for June 7 to June 20. The next broadcast is on June 11 by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.


 


My fellow Singaporeans ...

COVID-19 is the most serious health crisis the world has faced in a century.

We have all seen the devastating effects of the virus worldwide. When the outbreak gets out of control, the spike in cases can quickly overwhelm the healthcare system. Many people will not get the care they need, and the number of deaths will rise sharply.

We are determined to avoid the same fate in Singapore. That's why we've been going all out to control the spread of the virus, and to ensure that our healthcare system is able to care for all who are infected.

It has been a tough fight against a formidable and invisible enemy. We've had our share of challenges. But we faced them head-on.

Working together, we've stabilised the situation in the migrant worker dormitories. We've brought down community cases significantly. We've protected our seniors, and kept our fatality rates low. I thank everyone for your hard work and sacrifices in keeping our fellow citizens safe.

Most of all, I'd like to acknowledge all our officers serving on the front line, including our healthcare professionals and volunteers. I'm speaking today at the NCID, the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, which has been at the forefront of this battle. You have all been working flat out, making sacrifices and exceeding the call of duty. So to all of you, I want to say a big Thank You.

The strict measures and restrictions we've imposed over the recent months have been effective. But they come at a high price. We're cushioning the impact on our businesses and workers with four Budget packages this year. But we cannot remain closed indefinitely as we have to prioritise both lives and livelihoods.

That's why we've embarked on a phased approach to reopen safely.

But please understand: we are not going back to life before the circuit breaker. The vast majority of our population have not been exposed to the virus and are still vulnerable to the disease. We want to continue to provide maximum protection for our seniors and those with medical conditions. Hence we have been very cautious in our reopening.

We are now in Phase 1 and we will continue to monitor the situation over the coming week.

If the conditions remain stable, we will be able to move into Phase 2 before the end of the month.



THE KEY TO PROGRESSIVE EASING

We will then resume a broader range of activities, covering nearly the whole economy, and allow social interactions and family visits in small groups of not more than five people.

Externally, we are carefully easing travel restrictions and reopening our borders, by creating "green lanes" with selected countries. These arrangements will be limited to essential travel for work reasons, and tight controls will be put in place.

When conditions permit, we will extend "green lanes" to more countries, and to non-business travellers.

But it will take a while before we see international air travel recovering in a significant way, or before we can open up for mass market travel.

As we resume more activities, there will be more human contact and more opportunities for the virus to spread. So we must be mentally prepared to see more new cases. This has happened in many other places which exited from their lockdowns, and we must expect it to happen here too.

The key is whether we are able to keep community infection rates stable. If so, we can continue on the path of progressive easing.

But if the number of cases rise sharply, we will have to slow down the opening up, and even tighten certain restrictions.

Our ability to control the infection during this process of reopening is therefore critical. And that's why we've made use of the two months of circuit breaker to do two things.

RAMPED UP TRACING AND TESTING

First, we've increased our capacity and speed of contact tracing by developing new systems.

We have expanded our contact tracing teams, which now include personnel from the police and the Singapore Armed Forces. We are also using technology to speed up contact tracing. We have implemented the SafeEntry digital check-in/check-out system, and the TraceTogether app on smartphones.

With these enhancements, we can now identify close contacts faster, isolate them, and prevent large clusters from forming.

Beyond TraceTogether and SafeEntry, we are currently developing wearable Bluetooth devices. These will work on their own without the need for a phone. You can conveniently wear or carry them around, as you go about your daily activities. I seek everyone's understanding and cooperation. Please use these important tools - they will help us slow down the spread of the virus and save lives.

Second, we've expanded our testing capacity hugely. We are procuring more test-kits, building more laboratory capacity, and recruiting and training more laboratory technicians as well as personnel to carry out swabs and take blood samples.

In early April, we were doing about 2,000 tests a day. Now, we are able to conduct about 13,000 tests a day, and we are on track to reach 40,000 tests a day in the coming months.

This expanded testing capacity is critical. It means that we can test higher-risk groups more extensively. We can also do more surveillance testing in the community, including those with respiratory symptoms. This will give us a faster and more accurate sense of the number of cases circulating undetected.

Besides the standard testing methods, we are deploying other means of detection.

For example, we are extracting waste water from manholes to test for viral fragments. This provides an additional indicator to tell us if a specific group, such as those living in a dormitory, has infected people among them.

We are also using serology tests - these help to identify those who were previously infected but may have since recovered, and have developed antibodies in response that can help them fight the virus.

Aggressive testing and contact tracing will improve our ability to control the spread of the virus. They will help greatly in allowing business and life to resume progressively.



VACCINE DEVELOPMENT

In the longer term, an important part of the solution is a vaccine. The good news is that there is a massive global effort to develop a vaccine. And Singapore is working on this too. We have a pharmaceutical industry, and research capabilities in biomedical science.

The Economic Development Board is also discussing with pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines in Singapore. If and when a vaccine becomes available, we will make sure that every Singaporean who needs it gets it, and at an affordable price.

In parallel, clinicians and researchers around the world, including teams from Singapore, are working hard to develop drugs and other therapies to reduce the severity of the disease.

But drug and vaccine development is very challenging work. There is no guarantee that the drugs currently undergoing clinical trials will be effective. And despite the intensive international efforts, it will take a long time for any vaccine to be ready and available for mass distribution. So we have to be realistic and gird ourselves for more challenging times.

It is not likely that the virus will go away. Our population will be vulnerable for a long time, in a world where COVID-19 is all around us.

We must therefore adapt to COVID-19, and learn to live with it over the long term.

This does not depend upon government actions alone. Every one of us - Government, businesses and individuals - must do our part.

What's critical is people's behaviour and mindsets. We must stay disciplined and vigilant, and not let our guard down. We must practise social responsibility in upholding good personal hygiene and safe distancing measures - wash our hands regularly, wear a mask wherever we go, avoid big gatherings and crowded places, and see a doctor immediately when we are sick.

We've been emphasising all this for some time. But it bears repeating because, individually, these are steps everyone can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

And collectively, these actions will make all the difference in keeping COVID-19 at bay. They will enable us to have a safe and sustainable reopening, as we have seen in countries like Denmark and New Zealand.

Conversely, if we are lax in our personal precautions, new cases and new clusters will multiply quickly, and despite our best efforts to test and trace, we might end up in another circuit breaker down the road.

So please cooperate with the restrictions, and keep everyone safe.

WORK AND OTHER CHANGES

We also have to change the way we live and work. COVID-19 has precipitated a shift towards more flexible work arrangements. Working from home, staggered work hours and split team arrangements are becoming more of the norm.

Our urban plans will need to cater to these new demands. Office and building designs will also have to change, given what we now know about the risks of transmission in enclosed spaces.

We will need to improve ventilation and air filtering inside buildings. Other features like contactless fittings, automatic doors, as well as hand sanitiser and temperature monitoring stations, should also become part of the norm.

Companies will have to find new and safer ways to deliver their products and services.

Many are already embracing digital solutions. Some will need to change their business practices to adapt to the new environment.

And I am happy that wet market stallholders and hawkers are now using digital payments more, and online platforms to reach new customers.



THE CONSTRUCTION SECTOR

One major impact is on our construction sector.

Construction has been a key vulnerability in this pandemic. The industry will need to institute new safeguards at worksites, and continue its push for automation and productivity, in order to reduce its reliance on migrant workers.

Workers in construction - local and foreign - will have to be tested regularly and comprehensively.

We will also need to review and improve living arrangements for migrant workers.The present dormitories are in fact the outcome of improvements made over the past decade. But despite this, and the precautions we took, we still had major outbreaks in the dormitories.

We will tighten the safeguards and build new dormitories designed to be more resilient against infection risks.

But we have to be mindful that the risks will always be there, because of the large number of workers living together and sharing communal facilities. In fact, all communal living spaces, be they dormitories, nursing homes or cruise ships, will always be at risk in the event of an infectious disease outbreak.

These are significant changes, which will mean extra costs for the construction industry.

For now, the Government is bearing these costs through the Fortitude Budget. Beyond that, we will introduce other measures to cushion the impact, and to move the industry to new productivity levels.

I have no doubt that this will be a very difficult transition. But I assure everyone in the industry that we will work closely with you to get through this difficult patch, and to emerge stronger from this experience.

Ultimately, reopening our economy and society does not mean going back to the status quo ante. I know many are looking forward to resume your favourite activities or to get back to your usual routines. But this is not the time for big celebrations or parties. We will all need to adjust our expectations, lifestyles and norms.

THE SINGAPORE SPIRIT

We have shown our grit, adaptability and resilience during the circuit breaker, and we must continue to demonstrate the same ingenuity and resourcefulness in this new phase.

For example, we have found new and creative ways to stay in touch with family and friends - chatting and exercising online, and even having virtual meals or drinks together.

We may not be able to travel or have large gatherings anytime soon. But we are going on virtual tours, enjoying online concerts, and learning new skills through online classes. And many of us continue to draw strength from our faiths, thanks to churches, mosques and temples livestreaming their sermons and services to their followers.

In these difficult times, we have not despaired. We have not given up.

Instead, adversity has brought out the best in us - both individually and collectively. We have found strength and confidence in one another. We have shown that we are capable of rising above ourselves and caring for others.

Every day, we see countless examples of Singaporeans from all walks of life going out of their comfort zones and going the extra mile - they are volunteering at the dormitories, distributing food to the elderly, and looking out for the vulnerable among us.

Businesses too have been leaning forward to help - they are donating masks and supplies to those in need; and contributing to our front-line COVID-19 operations.

This is the Singapore spirit that gives us the confidence to press ahead, no matter how tough the odds. The road ahead is unpredictable, and countries everywhere are continuing to search for answers and solutions.

There is no guaranteed formula for success. But it is our grit and resilience, our compassion and kindness, our cohesion and strength that will see us through this crisis of our generation.

So let us continue to stand together, unshaken in spirit and resolve. Whatever the challenges ahead, let us face them together.

As one united people, we will defeat COVID-19 and we will prevail.




Related
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: Overcoming the Crisis of a Generation

Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong: Living with COVID-19

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