Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Streets and schools come alive again as Singapore reopens after COVID-19 circuit breaker

Most shops stay shuttered but about 75% of economy will resume operations in Phase One from 2 June 2020
By Chang Ai-Lien, Science and Health Editor, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

The streets got a little busier yesterday and public transport hummed into full gear despite moderate commuter numbers as Singapore emerged from its circuit breaker period to resume some activities that had been shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Most shops remained shuttered, but some masked workers marched back to offices, and some factories were buzzing again.

Around 75 per cent of the economy is expected to resume operations in phase one, with about one-third of workers returning to work on-site, up from 17 per cent during the circuit breaker.

If infection rates remain low and stable, Singapore could be allowed to ease into phase two of its reopening by the end of this month, where almost the entire economy will resume operations, the multi-ministerial task force set up to combat the outbreak has said.

Yesterday, 2 June, there were four cases reported in the community out of 544 new COVID-19 cases, with foreign workers in dormitories accounting for the majority of infections.

Still, Singaporeans returned to schools and workplaces cautiously, as will be the norm for some time to come.

They must get used to a new normal of living with restrictions, stressed National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force.

"Reopening means there will be an increase in activities and human contact, and more opportunities for the virus to spread. That is why we decided to implement a phased approach and not open the floodgates all at once," he said in a Money FM 89.3 radio interview.

A small traffic jam formed on Bishan Road at about 7am as parents drove their children to school.

Many students had remained home for close to two months, and precautions were in place when a limited number were allowed back.



While Primary 6 pupil Japhanie Tan, 12, was delighted to meet her friends, she will have to get used to wearing her face mask throughout the day and talking through it, as well as walking in single file at least a metre away from her friends.

Some returned to offices for the first time in a while, if working from home was not an option.

One of them, Ms Chin Ching, director of professional services firm SLM Consulting, was back in the office for a few hours.

She had not been able to retrieve the hard copies of some documents such as clients' financial statements during the circuit breaker, as not all of the records are electronically documented.

"Working back in the office was definitely more efficient than from home as (we had) access to all the legal documents," she said.



Others headed out to cover their grey roots, as hairdressers and barbers can now offer all services. In addition, motor vehicle and air-conditioner servicing is now allowed.

Seniors, the group most vulnerable to the virus, should still stay at home where possible, but their children and grandchildren can visit, within limits.



Teacher Yeo Chengrong, 38, dropped off his two sons, aged two and five, at their grandparents' place for the first time in two months. The family had missed these meetings.

"Sometimes, it really takes losing something for you to truly treasure it," he said.

Additional reporting by Cheow Sue-Ann and Choo Yun Ting


















Phased reopening will protect lives and livelihoods; Singaporeans must get used to new normal: Lawrence Wong
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

A phased approach to reopening Singapore will help protect both lives and livelihoods, but Singaporeans must get used to the "new normal" of living with restrictions, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry COVID-19 task force, said in a Money FM 89.3 radio interview yesterday that the process of reopening is a "very tricky" one - as seen from the experience of countries such as South Korea, which saw a second wave of infections after emerging from lockdown.

"Reopening means there will be an increase in activities and human contact, and more opportunities for the virus to spread. That is why we decided to implement a phased approach and not open the floodgates all at once.

"So please, please do not go out and have a big party."



Mr Wong had said last week that phase two of Singapore's post-circuit breaker reopening could start before the end of this month, if infection rates remain low and stable.

About 75 per cent of the economy will resume operations in phase one, which began yesterday. Shops will stay closed during this phase, and there will be no dining in at restaurants and other food outlets.

Speaking to Money FM host Elliot Danker, Mr Wong said the Government is prioritising both lives and livelihoods by reopening the economy gradually, while ensuring that it has the capabilities to test and contact-trace on a large scale.

"As cases emerge, we make sure we have the ability to quickly detect and isolate these cases and prevent large clusters from forming."

This does not necessarily mean keeping community infection numbers to single digits, he said, but, rather, having the ability to control and ring-fence any detected cases.

"We understand that this phased approach will have an impact on businesses, that is why in the recent Budget, we provided more support for businesses that cannot reopen immediately," he said.

 


Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a further $33 billion in COVID-19 aid under the Fortitude Budget. Together with three earlier rescue packages - the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity Budgets - the Government's support totals $92.9 billion, or close to 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product.

The Fortitude Budget includes enhancements to the Jobs Support Scheme, which subsidises wages paid by companies to local workers, as well as more rental relief for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr Wong cautioned that Singaporeans should not expect to return to their pre-COVID-19 way of life as there will still be restrictions in place, such as safe distancing and the wearing of masks.

"We should think of this as a new normal - a state which we can expect to remain until a vaccine or treatment is developed," he said.



He added that even if a vaccine is developed, it is expected to take more than a year and may not provide long-term immunity against COVID-19.

"We need to be prepared mentally for this to be a long fight."

While there is much debate on the relative merits of various countries' approaches to tackling the virus, the Government's focus, he said, remains on the task at hand - to control the spread of the virus and ensure that Singapore's healthcare system is not overwhelmed.

Thanking everyone for rallying together during the crisis, he said: "We have reached the end of the circuit breaker, and this is indeed a milestone. I want to thank everyone for your sacrifices in keeping our fellow citizens safe and bringing community infections down significantly."




The key strategy is to have aggressive testing and contact tracing. We have now learnt that the viral spread occurs quite early in the course of infection, even before symptoms develop.

That is why we have taken the time during the circuit breaker to do two things. First, we have beefed up our contact tracing teams and we are enhancing their capabilities through the use of technology, like the TraceTogether app. Second, we have ramped up our testing capacity.


NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT MINISTER LAWRENCE WONG, on Singapore's strategy to detect unlinked COVID-19 cases


 



This is not about whether it is younger ministers or older ministers. We are all in this together, and from the Government's point of view, we have one task force, and the Government is behind the task force. This is a whole-of-government machinery at work.

Outside of the task force, we work together as a team. Where there is a need, we consult (others) and discuss very difficult decisions. In due course, we decide as a Government whether or not to proceed with a decision, and when we do, it is a collective decision and has the full backing of everyone in the Cabinet. That is how we do it.


LAWRENCE WONG, on the 4G leadership's role in COVID-19 decision-making










Let's focus on overcoming virus, says Lawrence Wong
By Grace Ho, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

Singapore was once touted as having achieved the gold standard in tackling COVID-19. But the subsequent surge in imported cases and virus spread in foreign worker dormitories led to negative international media coverage on its approach.

Responding to this observation by host Elliot Danker in a Money FM 89.3 radio interview yesterday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that like countries everywhere, Singapore has had its fair share of challenges in the four months since it started its fight against COVID-19.

"Through this journey, we will see all sorts of headlines and commentaries, some positive and others critical," he said. "We read all of them, and if there are useful ideas and suggestions, we will consider them carefully and see how we can improve."



But the multi-ministry COVID-19 task force and Singaporeans must focus on the task at hand, he said, which is to control the spread of the virus and ensure that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed.

As seen in some cities such as London and New York, the situation can get out of control very quickly, and this can be a "devastating experience", he said.

"When the spike in cases exceeds the capacity of the healthcare system and people do not get the care they need, the number of deaths rises sharply."

New York, whose hospitals were overflowing with infected patients, remains the hardest-hit US state overall with nearly 30,000 deaths. The disease has officially claimed more than 39,000 lives in Britain.



In Singapore, there have been 24 deaths from COVID-19.

"That we have been able to avoid this outcome (of high fatalities) is to the credit of all Singaporeans working together, and our healthcare professionals and volunteers who have gone beyond the call of duty and put their lives at risk to take excellent care of all our patients," said Mr Wong.

"Let's focus on this task because the fight is not over. We should continue to rally together and work together to ensure that we can overcome the virus."













Emotional reunion for some families after close to 60 days of separation
By Cheow Sue-Ann, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

After nearly 60 days of separation due to the circuit breaker, grandparents Yeo Khee Soon and Lee Siam Hiang were over the moon yesterday morning at being able to see and hug their two grandsons.

"It has been such a long time, look how you have grown," they chorused, calling the names of the boys, aged two and five, repeatedly.

Owing to safe distancing measures, the couple, both aged 70, are among many who have not had face-to-face interaction with their loved ones.

But yesterday, with the lifting of some circuit breaker measures, many people turned up at their parents' and grandparents' doors.

All households, however, can receive at most two visitors, once a day. And the visitors have to reside at the same address.

The elderly couple's son, Mr Yeo Chengrong, a teacher, said his two boys were visibly excited to be visiting their grandparents.

Said the 38-year-old: "Usually, we leave the house a bit later, and even then they would be sleepy or dozing off. But this morning, they were wide awake and ready to go."

He added that his parents were brimming with emotion on seeing his children, who they insisted looked different and had lost weight.



In a typical show of grandmotherly love, Madam Lee was ready to serve them their favourite food: fried fish.

The younger Mr Yeo, whose wife is also a teacher, said the separation made him realise how his parents' support in taking care of his sons had given him peace of mind at work.

"During the circuit breaker, that really became apparent, and I am very grateful to them."

He also missed his mother's cooking. "Eating outside food can be interesting, but after a while, all you want is to eat some home-cooked food."

When he picked up his children from his parents' place later in the day, he happily looked forward to dinner at home as his mother handed him packets of food.



For many such as private tutor David, who declined to give his full name, the easing of circuit breaker measures means being able to visit and spend precious time with their elderly parents and grandparents.

The 55-year-old is looking forward to seeing his 82-year-old mother today. "My mother has mobility difficulties and she lives alone with a maid. I would worry about whether she is eating right or taking her medicine," he said.

"She wondered why no one was visiting her, especially her grandchildren, and it was very difficult to explain to her. And we couldn't call because she is hard of hearing.

"Finally, we can now have a meal together, let her know what we have been up to and take the grandchildren to see her on weekends."

Mr Hafiz Samsudin, 31, a freelancer in the media industry, will be visiting his grandparents to celebrate Hari Raya Puasa belatedly, as he could not do so on May 24 due to the circuit breaker restrictions.

The occasion is especially important to his grandparents, who are in their 80s and 90s.

His family will draw up a roster of when various family members can visit them without flouting social distancing rules.

"Usually, we all would spend the first day with them, but this year, all we could do was drop off some food and money at their home.

"It was very emotional. They said they wished I could just come in, but I had to tell them I could not, it was against the law and it was for their own sake."






















Schools reopen with tight safety measures in place, prolonged closure would have tremendous impact on kids: Ong Ye Kung
Now is a good time to reopen schools; few new community cases, closure impact on students among considerations as Term 3 starts
By Jolene Ang, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

Considering it could be a year or more before a vaccine for COVID-19 is found and since there are few new cases of infection in the community, now is a good time to reopen schools, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.

Extended closure of schools would have a tremendous impact on children not just in academic terms, but also emotionally and socially, he added.

"We must remember, education is really not just about taking exams or getting good grades," said Mr Ong.

"It is (also) about the character and socio-emotional development. And we cannot deprive a whole generation of that experience."



The Ministry of Education (MOE) will be reviewing ways to blend classroom and digital learning to "harness the best of both worlds in a modern education system", he added.

Self-directed learning cannot fully substitute in-class learning, but it can give children the time and space to explore and study at their own pace, Mr Ong noted.

It also allows them the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and go beyond the curriculum.



Mr Ong was speaking to reporters during a visit to Xingnan Primary School in Jurong West yesterday, as schools across Singapore opened their doors to welcome back some 250,000 students from selected cohorts.

"(We will) come back to school progressively, with precautions, and make things as safe as we can."



During his visit, Mr Ong spoke to pupils arriving at school in the morning and joined a class for morning assembly, which was held in the classrooms.

Each cohort took its own route to get to its classroom.

The pupils also had designated toilets.

Mr Ong also visited a Primary 6 class' physical education lesson, which was conducted in the school hall by a teacher wearing a face shield and using a microphone.

Pupils were taught how to remove their masks and place them into resealable bags to be stored and worn again after the lesson.

Mr Ong later joined a group of Primary 5 pupils for recess.

Across schools, daily face-to-face classes will be conducted only for the graduating cohorts of Primary 6 and Secondary 4 and 5.

Those in Primary 4 and 5 and Secondary 1 and 2 were also at school yesterday, but they will rotate weekly - with students from the remaining batches - between home-based learning and having lessons in class.

Up to 50 per cent of students in junior colleges and Millennia Institute (MI) returned to their schools as well, with priority given to graduating students.

The attendance rate for the selected cohorts yesterday was 97.6 per cent for primary schools, 97.7 per cent for secondary schools and 98.4 per cent for the JCs and MI, which MOE said is "healthy".

All schools will continue with tightened safety measures, such as students staying in class groupings, fixed exam-style seating and appropriate distancing.

Staggered recess times and dismissals, daily temperature taking and wipe-down routines will continue, with new rules such as having teachers and students wear face masks or face shields except when eating and exercising.



Primary 6 pupil Sophia Wu, 11, said she is not used to donning a mask most of the time.

"It is suffocating because you can't really breathe well and it makes you warmer," she said, but she added that she and her classmates have been able to cope with the safety measures so far.

Xingnan Primary School principal Charles Chan said the school is trying to find ways to motivate pupils to adhere to the measures.

For example, it has extra masks from its school uniform vendor and could allow the children to decorate these themselves.

Said Mr Chan: "If they personalise their masks, put buttons or ribbons or perhaps their names, they will own the masks and perhaps they will want to use them more - a new accessory for them that will be part of life and the 'new normal'."



















Pupils begin adapting to new normal of safe distancing
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

Sitting in single file in their classroom, according to their class register numbers, a class of Primary 6 pupils ate their home-packed food in silence.

This was an unusual scene at Jing Shan Primary School in Ang Mo Kio yesterday during recess. Previously, the pupils would typically be playing games.

At lunch time, they were again sitting apart from one another, this time in the canteen, occupying seats labelled with their register numbers. If they spoke, it seemed to be in hushed tones, as teachers reminded them not to chat while eating because they were mask-less.

These safe distancing measures during meals were among several new rules students had to follow when schools reopened yesterday.

Other changes they will have to grow accustomed to, as part of the new normal in schools, include wearing facial masks throughout the day, not talking to friends without their masks on and walking in single file at least 1m apart.

Still, many like Primary 6 pupil Japhanie Tan were delighted to be back in school, after nearly two months of not seeing their friends face to face. "I am very excited to come back to school because I can step out of my home and meet my friends. And this time, I can see my whole class," said the 12-year-old. "My best friend since Primary 3 sits in front of me, so I am very happy."

Japhanie, whose father is a senior manufacturing engineer and mother an accounts assistant, had returned to school a few times in the past fortnight to attend classes arranged specially for Primary 6 pupils, who will be taking the Primary School Leaving Examination later this year.

But she did not get to see all her classmates as the lessons were staggered. "I missed eating school food, especially laksa. I also missed the interactions with my teachers and friends," she said.

"On the computer, you can't ask questions whenever you want because you will disrupt the lesson. I also tried talking and playing games with my friends on Zoom and Houseparty, but it is very different," said Japhanie, who has an older brother.

Asked if it was difficult to get used to any of the new routines, Japhanie said: "Wearing a mask is not super hard, it is just that we can't hear one another very well and we have to speak louder."

Recess in the classroom "seemed a bit quiet", but she is confident she will adapt to it, albeit slowly.

Another change was the way the physical education lesson was conducted. In the school hall yesterday, Japhanie and her classmates learnt how to dribble a ball on the spot while standing 2m apart at markers on the floor. They hardly moved from their spots, except to collect and return the balls, again doing so in single file. "We just bounced the ball, so there was less interaction," said Japhanie.

Madam Shakila Jamal Mohamed, Japhanie's form teacher and English language teacher, said the pupils had previously got used to routines like wiping down their tables and washing their hands. "But with masks on now, it is a big change, because they love to talk to one another, especially during recess and breaks," she said.

"They are children and need to understand the 'whys' behind all the measures. So, we tell them about the COVID-19 pandemic and why there is a need for social responsibility and good hygiene."








Returning pre-schoolers receive warm welcome
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 3 Jun 2020

St James' Church Kindergarten yesterday ushered the oldest group of children from its Harding Road campus in Dempsey into a new season, or "spring break", as the pre-school called it.

They had been away from class for nearly two months, since pre-schools were required to suspend their general services.

As they arrived, the little ones were greeted with colourful flower garlands and posters their teachers had put up, not just a thermometer pointed at their foreheads for temperature taking.

Altogether, about 270 Kindergarten 1 and 2 children attended the morning and afternoon sessions. That is 73 per cent of the campus' total enrolment, similar to the attendance before the circuit breaker.

It is, however, below the numbers before the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, said principal Alice Lock.



Attendance yesterday at the 17 pre-schools run by St James' Preschool Services ranged from 61 per cent to 100 per cent.

At the Dempsey centre, songs were played over the audio system as the children walked in, and each classroom had a photo booth.

Mrs Lock said: "We want to take a more positive approach and create memories for them, while we teach them about social distancing."



Housewife Vivian Goh, 39, whose older daughter is in K1 at the Dempsey centre, said: "Initially, I was considering whether to send the kids back because we have a choice for kids below primary school."

Her younger daughter in Nursery 1 will return to school next week.

"We discussed it as a family, and the children said they were ready and happy to see their teachers and friends. We told them about wearing masks and seating arrangements, to prepare them for what to expect," she added.



Mr Poh Soon Tat, head of operations at Star Learners, which has 41 centres, said about 70 per cent to more than 80 per cent of K1 and K2 children returned yesterday.

Parents were also given a specified time period to drop off and pick up their children to minimise interaction, he added.



At its Bishan Central centre, principal Pua Yoke Ting said: "So far, our children have been cooperative in abiding by the measures. They are very adaptable."

Financial adviser Loh Jia Min, 28, who took her K2 daughter back to private childcare yesterday, said: "We were worried about risks at first, but we were also concerned she would be far behind academically if she stayed at home.

"We also thought it would be tiring for her to wear a mask for so long, but we are pleasantly surprised that she has not complained."








 




















































 




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