Thursday, 28 January 2021

Singapore starts COVID-19 vaccination exercise for seniors on 27 Jan 2021; over 100,000 people have had jab so far

Singapore starts COVID-19 jabs for seniors, with Ang Mo Kio, Tanjong Pagar residents receiving shots
By Yuen Sin and Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2021

The vaccination drive for the elderly got under way yesterday as seniors in Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar began receiving Covid-19 jabs at polyclinics and the community vaccination centre at Tanjong Pagar Community Club.

The pilot scheme will eventually be expanded to seniors in other precincts.

With some clutching appointment cards, they began streaming into the polyclinics from as early as 8am to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who visited Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic, said he was glad that the vaccination process for seniors there was running smoothly, with more than 200 having made appointments to receive vaccine jabs at the polyclinic yesterday.

"So far, everybody who has booked those slots has turned up. Very few no-shows. So I think that people are taking it seriously and in the right spirit," he said.


More than 120 also got vaccinated at Outram Polyclinic yesterday. In all, close to 100,000 people have been vaccinated here since the drive started last month, up from over 60,000 as at last Friday.

Housewife Chin Mee Jung, 71, said she was nervous before her appointment at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic. But she received her jab without any hiccups.

"It wasn't painful, and it will be even scarier if I did not get vaccinated and end up contracting the virus," said Madam Chin.

Madam Lee Oi Lin, 70, was also initially apprehensive but decided to get vaccinated at Outram Polyclinic for her own protection.

"Actually, I was a little worried at first because I am a senior," the retiree said in Mandarin, adding that she has high blood pressure and high blood sugar.

"But after thinking about it, I still decided to get vaccinated."


Mr Mohamed Haniffa Mohamed Ali, a 64-year-old security officer, also received the vaccine at the Outram site yesterday.

Both his daughters - one is a nurse and the other works as a screener in a hotel - have been vaccinated.

"I consulted them and they said 'Father, go ahead'," he said.

However, a senior, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ho, said he was advised not to take the jab after turning up at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic for his appointment, as he had previously developed allergic reactions to a painkiller.

"The staff at the polyclinic had asked very detailed questions about my medical history. Though I can't take the jab today, it is better to be safe than sorry, in case there are complications," the 73-year-old said in Mandarin.


Between 5,000 and 10,000 seniors in Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar will receive letters inviting them to book appointments to get vaccinated, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said last week. This number may increase or be reduced, depending on the response.

The pilots in the two towns will help the Ministry of Health iron out any operational issues before it scales up the programme nationwide, with vaccinations to be progressively extended to all seniors from the middle of next month.

Vaccines will also be offered to seniors at the community vaccination centre at Teck Ghee Community Club in Ang Mo Kio, which will be set up by Feb 1.

Each of the 24 towns here will have one community vaccination centre by end-March at locations like community centres.


PM Lee said seniors have told him that Silver Generation Ambassadors have been visiting them to provide information on the vaccines.


"It is good for you, it is safe, it is free, and will help all of us," he said.


16-year-old Singaporean detained under ISA for planning terrorist attacks on two mosques; 20-year-old who planned to kill Jews at a Waterloo Street synagogue also detained

He aimed to kill Muslims here with machete on March 15 anniversary of Christchurch attacks in New Zealand
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2021

A 16-year-old Singaporean student has been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) after the authorities uncovered his plans to attack two mosques and kill worshippers in Singapore on March 15 - the second anniversary of the Christchurch terror attacks.

A Protestant Christian of Indian ethnicity, he is the first detainee to be inspired by far-right extremist ideology and the youngest person detained under the ISA for terrorism-related activities to date, said the Internal Security Department (ISD) yesterday.


The secondary school student was found to have made detailed plans and preparations to conduct terrorist attacks using a machete at the two mosques, the ISD said.


He had chosen Assyafaah Mosque in Sembawang and Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands as his targets because they are near his home, it added. He planned to rent a BlueSG car to travel between the two sites and had watched videos on operating an automatic transmission vehicle.

Influenced by the Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant, the youth had mapped out his route, bought a flak jacket, intended to buy a machete on online marketplace Carousell and wanted to live-stream his planned massacre.

"He was self-radicalised, motivated by a strong antipathy towards Islam and a fascination with violence," said ISD, adding that he had also watched the live-streamed video of the terrorist attack on the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and had read the attacker's manifesto. Tarrant, a white supremacist, gunned down 51 people in the attacks on March 15, 2019.


The Singaporean youth also watched Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) propaganda videos, and came to the erroneous conclusion that ISIS represented Islam, and that Islam called on its followers to kill non-believers, said ISD.

ISD said it was clear from his plans and preparations that he was influenced by Tarrant's actions and manifesto, such as how he planned to carry out the attacks on the anniversary of the Christchurch attacks, and had intended to modify a tactical vest he bought online such that the attack could be live-streamed from a mobile device.


Mr Shanmugam told reporters: "How do we weed out or find out every single person who wants to do something like this? I have asked ISD and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to engage the religious organisations to be more vigilant across the different religions, and advisories have been issued to religious organisations to strengthen their crisis preparedness to be more alert."

The minister added that the youth will be rehabilitated, instead of treating him as a criminal, charging him and putting him in jail. "So here, with rehabilitation, my hope is that after a number of years, he can be released and carry on with his life."


ISD said its investigation so far indicates that the youth had acted alone. There was also no indication that he had tried to influence anyone with his extreme outlook or involve others in his attack plans.

Religious leaders issued calls for solidarity yesterday.

The National Council of Churches of Singapore said it wanted to assure the Muslim community that it remained committed to defeating hatred and violence. "We will not be deterred from our common goal to build harmony and cohesion in multi-religious Singapore society," it added.


Wednesday, 27 January 2021

COVID-19 challenges and 3 resets: Lawrence Wong at IPS Singapore Perspectives 2021

Pandemic calls for 3 major resets in society: Education Minister Lawrence Wong
Singapore should aim to emerge fairer, greener and more united
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has set the stage for Singapore to undertake three major "resets" which could help it emerge from the crisis a fairer, greener and more united country.

This entails combating inequality and ensuring social mobility, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday. It also means building a greener economy that is more environmentally sustainable, and fostering a renewed sense of solidarity, he added.

Speaking at the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Perspectives conference which is themed "Reset", the minister noted that it could take four or five years before the world sees the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singaporeans will have to be prepared to live in an acutely changed world, he said.

To do so, he spelt out three "resets". Singapore has to first reset its social compact by tackling inequality and keeping society fluid and mobile. All over the world, the pandemic has widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, he said.


In Singapore, the Government has always aimed to reduce inequality and ensure a meritocratic system, Mr Wong added. To that end, a balance has been struck between free markets and state intervention, with policies tilted towards the lower income.

When the pandemic hit, the country drew on its reserves to save jobs and help those who were hardest hit to tide over.

These temporary measures will taper down this year as the economy improves. However, the pandemic has created added impetus to strengthen the social support system.

"There will be a permanent shift towards further strengthening of our social safety nets, to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and we will have to work out how this will be sustainable over the longer term," said Mr Wong, who is also Second Minister for Finance.


He stressed as well the importance of uplifting children from birth, stressing that meritocracy "must not ossify into a hereditary system, where the condition of your birth determines the outcome of your life".

Schools with a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds would get more help and resources, including some of the most committed teachers and principals, to help all students achieve their potential, he said, noting that he has made it a point to visit these schools since joining the ministry.

On the topic of sustainability, the minister pointed out that Singapore is already one of the greenest cities in the world. It is also the only one to completely freeze the growth of its vehicle population, and one of the few to have closed its water loop.

"But we must go further and build on what we have done to achieve cleaner growth and greener mindsets," he said.


Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the crisis, noted that the pandemic has also intensified divisions in many countries. While easy access to information has been a boon, it has also meant people now can access raw, instant, unfiltered information, including falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

"So the irony is despite the overwhelming ease of access of information, we are living in a 'golden age of ignorance', he said, warning that as more extreme views take hold, forging a consensus and governing is made more difficult.

The answer is for societies to forge a stronger sense of solidarity, he said, noting that one of Singapore's founding leaders, Mr S. Rajaratnam, had referred to the Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun's concept of "asabiyyah", or the bonds in a community, which are vital to its sense of cohesion.

Concluding, Mr Wong said: "I am confident that we will prevail and emerge stronger from this crucible. And I do not say this lightly. I speak from my own conviction of seeing the best of Singaporeans over the past year, in the face of adversity and very tough conditions."

Saturday, 23 January 2021

COVID-19 safe management measures tightened from 26 January 2021; senior citizens to be vaccinated from 27 January, starting with pilots in Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar

Visitors per household capped at 8 per day from 26 Jan; Chinese New Year visits limited to 2 other households

COVID-19 vaccination for seniors to begin from 27 Jan at Ang Mo Kio and Tanjong Pagar; national roll-out for elderly begins mid-February

More than 60,000 people in Singapore have received COVID-19 vaccines as of 22 Jan
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2021

From Tuesday, Jan 26, all households will be able to host a maximum of eight guests a day, as part of stepped-up measures to combat rising Covid-19 infections ahead of Chinese New Year.

Individuals are encouraged to limit themselves to visiting at most two other households daily, and stick to visiting only family members during the festive period, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling the Covid-19 crisis, said yesterday.

Three coronavirus clusters have emerged since Singapore entered phase three of its reopening on Dec 28, when households were permitted to receive up to eight guests at any one time.

But increased social interaction during the year-end period has contributed to the rising number of community cases, said Mr Wong.

"With more human activities, there is an increased chance of transmission of any infectious disease," he added. "That is why we are very concerned. Because compared to, say, a month ago, our vulnerability has increased, and the situation can escalate very rapidly, especially with the likelihood of more interactions and activities taking place over the Chinese New Year period."


People will still be allowed to gather outside in groups of up to eight. However, the Government will be stepping up spot checks at restaurants, malls and other crowded venues. Tough action will be taken against individuals and operators caught flouting rules.

The authorities will also conduct a surveillance testing exercise for stallholders, shop owners, restaurant workers and food delivery workers operating in and around Chinatown. The two-day exercise will start on Feb 8. The authorities will reach out to these groups with further details.

"While there has been no evidence that these community groups are at higher risk of infection, the Ministry of Health will be offering tests to them as they are expected to interact more frequently with other members of the public during this time," the ministry said in a statement yesterday. It added that the Government will fully bear the costs of these tests. "We strongly encourage all individuals in the identified community groups to come forward for testing."


When asked why the new rules were being put in place relatively far ahead of Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 12, Mr Wong said it was a pre-emptive move.

"Based on the recent cases that we have seen, based on the concerns highlighted earlier that we are seeing increased signs of complacency in the community about the transmission risk, we think it is timely to make a pre-emptive move now and not wait till Chinese New Year," he said.


He pointed out that Singapore saw a spike in Covid-19 cases after Chinese New Year last year, with many clusters linked to festive gatherings. These included the large cluster linked to a dinner at Safra Jurong, as well as a family get-together in Mei Hwan Drive.



The minister was also asked if people could pay multiple visits to the same home in a day, or if two different families could visit the same home at the same time.

"I think the rules are very clear," Mr Wong replied. "We never set any stipulations on timing, or length of visits, but it is eight distinct individuals within a day to a particular household."


But beyond that, he appealed to Singaporeans to abide by the spirit of the new rules, which aim to reduce social interactions and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

For example, visiting someone multiple times a day could increase their risk of being exposed to the virus, Mr Wong said.

"For every rule that we set, please do not try and optimise your maximum gain around the rule, as though this is something that you could... gain some additional benefit out of," the minister added.

"Because in the end... by having more exposure, more interactions... you are putting yourself and your loved ones at risk."


Friday, 22 January 2021

One year of COVID-19 in Singapore: Interview with Ministers Gan Kim Yong and Lawrence Wong

Singapore may tighten COVID-19 rules ahead of Chinese New Year 2021, will also prioritise vaccine roll-out, say multi-ministry task force co-chairs

COVID-19 vaccine will not be reserved for Singaporeans who choose to wait and see, jabs will go to those next in line
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2021

The battle against Covid-19 this year will be fought on two fronts: speeding up the nationwide vaccination programme, and keeping the slate of safeguards finely tuned.

This could mean implementing further restrictions ahead of Chinese New Year next month, when more social interaction is expected to take place, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic.

He pointed out that the number of community Covid-19 cases has been inching up, roughly two weeks after the year-end festive period.

"We are concerned that if we continue in the same sort of situation, (if) we don't do something more, then this continued creep in the cases may end up in new clusters emerging that may be beyond our control later," said Mr Wong.

"So, we are considering very carefully now whether additional measures may be necessary."


He added: "Exactly what these are - whether they pertain to house visitations, what kind of measures - we are still studying. And when we are ready, we will highlight them."

Mr Wong and task force co-chair, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, were addressing reporters on Tuesday in an interview to mark one year of Covid-19 in Singapore.

The 90-minute interview covered topics ranging from the challenges faced over the past 12 months to the prospects ahead.


The country's response to the crisis reflected the resilience of its society, Mr Gan said, adding: "When the challenges come our way, we are able to come together, look after one another, support one another and to emerge stronger at the end of the crisis."

Mr Wong said that in many ways, Singapore is in a stronger position to tackle the virus than it was before. It now has better healthcare capabilities, improved testing and tracing capabilities, and is rolling out vaccinations.

On the other hand, the situation remains highly unpredictable because the virus is still spreading in the wider world, he added. The number of community cases is going up, and there is a sense of fatigue with all the rules in place.


Mr Gan also said that much remains unknown about the virus.

Mr Wong said that from that point of view, Singapore is still in a vulnerable position. In fact, he added, it is almost as though the country is back where it started a year ago.

"We have to think through, all over again, what is the right calibration of measures (and) how far do we want to go in terms of the restrictions," he said.


He stressed that Singapore's safeguards are not watertight.

As long as there is a weakness in any line of the country's defence - for example, someone who feels ill but does not see a doctor - a super-spreader event with multiple virus clusters could emerge. "And then, we will be running around trying to chase after the virus all over again, like what happened at the beginning of last year," Mr Wong said.


Both ministers stressed that Singapore must remain vigilant, even though the end is in sight with the vaccination programme well under way. If all goes according to plan, Singapore will have enough vaccines for all citizens and long-term residents by the third quarter of this year.

"But between now and the third quarter of this year, there are many months, and many things can happen during this period," Mr Wong said. "So, let's stay alert, let's stay vigilant, let's rally together and complete our mission to defeat Covid-19 together."





Sunday, 17 January 2021

Making ours an uplifting society: Tharman Shanmugaratnam

One that uplifts everyone through opportunities in life, uplifts the low-paid, and uplifts the spirit
By Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Published The Straits Times, 16 Jan 2021

Covid-19, like an X-ray beamed into societies all over the world, has exposed many fractures. It has also widened them, as the pandemic and economic crisis hit those already disadvantaged the hardest.

Governments with the capacity and finances have been able to soften these unequal blows. However, as we now rebuild, we must do more than recover from this crisis. We must tackle the longer-term, more embedded challenges that will outlast Covid-19.

Many advanced nations have seen decades-long stagnation in standards of living for the majority. What's equally troubling has been the loss of relative social mobility: where you end up in life relative to others depends on where you start, and especially on how poor or well-off your parents are. As a result, faith in meritocracy, or in how people can advance in life through education and better jobs, is also on the wane.

These trends have weakened the sense of togetherness in many societies. Where there was once a strong sense of "we", there is now "them versus us". In some places, "them versus us" is not only about the rich or highly educated versus the rest. It also taps into racial or religious antipathies, which then have a life of their own. We have to recognise these changes happening around the world, and prevent them from taking root in Singapore.

We must do the utmost to make ours an uplifting society - one that uplifts everyone through opportunities in life, one that uplifts the poor and vulnerable, and one that uplifts the spirit.


Keeping society fluid

It requires a strong sense of collective mission, and continuous refreshing of strategies. But we should keep two issues foremost in mind. First, to achieve relative social mobility, with people being able to move up in life and exchange places with others, we must also have absolute mobility, where everyone can see things getting better. We must have that escalator that takes everyone up. It helps everyone accept that no one's place on the escalator is fixed, and others may catch up from below or move ahead of them. It also supports a sense of solidarity, because people can see that life is not a zero-sum game, and are willing to have more done to help those in greater need. As many societies are seeing, once that escalator is broken, everything begins to fray, and people turn resentful.

Second, to tackle inequality on any lasting basis, we must address unequal opportunities, above all, and not just unequal outcomes. Surveys around the world show that most people accept some inequality of outcomes, if it reflects differences in effort, ability or entrepreneurial contributions. But the inequality of opportunities is a different matter. It is the bad cholesterol in the system. We have to be especially concerned about unequal opportunities early in life, as they have a way of ingraining advantages and disadvantages that last through life.

However, we do need to temper unequal outcomes as well - and in particular, avoid people getting trapped in a permanent underclass. When parents have weak and unpredictable incomes, their children tend to have a less secure upbringing, and can easily fall behind and lower their own aspirations. In other words, outcomes in one generation shape opportunities for the next.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

COVID-19 vaccinations for seniors in Singapore will begin in late-January 2021

8 vaccination centres will be set up by the end of February as Singapore ramps up vaccine roll-out

More than 6,200 people in Singapore have received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far

Letters will be progressively sent to seniors to invite them to book an appointment for their vaccination
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 14 Jan 2021

Singapore's vaccination programme is kicking into high gear, as it expands its scope and increases its pace, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

Eight vaccination centres will be set up by the end of February, including two centres at Changi Airport Terminal 4 and Raffles City Convention Centre that are already operational, as well as two more at the former Hong Kah Secondary School and Woodlands Galaxy Community Club, which will begin running next week.

Another four centres will be ready next month, and more centres will be progressively opened as Singapore expands its vaccination programme, added Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.


Shots will also be given at polyclinics and general practitioner clinics, as well as at healthcare institutions.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital yesterday, Mr Gan said the pace of vaccination is being ramped up from this week, with close to 2,800 vaccinated on Tuesday alone.


More than 6,200 people here have received their first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine so far, and this figure is expected to rise substantially in the coming weeks.

"We are planning to continue to expand the scope of vaccination and to increase the pace of vaccination eventually to cover the whole population in Singapore," he said.

Mr Gan and task force co-chair, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, also received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine yesterday.

Mr Wong also announced that the elderly will start receiving their Covid-19 vaccinations from this month. The Government had previously announced that seniors aged 70 and above would start getting jabs from next month.

Letters will be sent out to inform the elderly of when they can make bookings for their vaccinations.


Since Singapore kicked off its vaccination drive on Dec 30, vaccines have been administered to healthcare workers in public and private healthcare institutions.

Front-line workers, including those at airports and sea ports, as well as swabbers and workers in community care facilities, are also being vaccinated.

Letters will be progressively issued to other Singapore residents when their turn to be vaccinated comes. Mr Wong said this expansion of the vaccination programme will be timed together with the arrival of vaccine shipments.


Mr Gan urged Singapore residents to go for the vaccination when they are offered one, stressing that it will collectively provide protection against the coronavirus to the whole population if a high vaccination rate is achieved.

"This, in turn, will allow us to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic more quickly. It will allow our economy to recover faster, it will also allow us to resume our community activities faster," he said.


If all goes to plan, Singapore will have enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone by the third quarter of this year.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine - the only one approved here to date - requires two injections, given 21 days apart. Singapore is expecting more vaccine deliveries in the next few months, including from American biotechnology firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.

The Sinovac vaccine has yet to be approved, said Mr Gan. The Moderna vaccine, which has a similar efficacy rate as Pfizer's, is under review, Mr Wong said.


Monday, 11 January 2021

In silencing President Donald Trump, Twitter and Facebook show where power lies

The muzzling of a president by Twitter and Facebook will stoke free-speech debate and deepen conservatives' grievance over Silicon Valley's political bias
By Kevin Roose, Published The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2021

In the end, two billionaires from California did what legions of politicians, prosecutors and power brokers had tried and failed to do for years: They pulled the plug on President Donald Trump.

Twitter's decision to permanently suspend Mr Trump's account on Friday "due to the risk of further incitement of violence", after a decision a day earlier by Facebook to ban the President at least to the end of his term, was a watershed moment in the history of social media.

Both companies had spent years defending Mr Trump's continued presence on their platforms, only to change course days before the end of his presidency.

Why these companies' chief executives - Mr Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mr Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook - decided to act now is no mystery. They have been under pressure for years to hold Mr Trump accountable, and that pressure intensified enormously this past week, as everyone from Ms Michelle Obama to the companies' own employees called for a permanent ban in the wake of Wednesday's deadly Capitol riot.


These companies, corporate autocracies masquerading as mini-democracies, often portray their moderation decisions as the results of a kind of formulaic due process, as if "don't incite an insurrectionist mob" had been in the community guidelines all along.

But high-stakes calls like these typically come down to gut decisions made under extreme duress. In this case, Mr Dorsey and Mr Zuckerberg considered the evidence, consulted their teams, weighed the trade-offs and risks of inaction - including the threat of a worker revolt that could damage their ability to attract top talent - and decided that they'd seen enough.

Journalists and historians will spend years unpacking the improvisational nature of these bans, and scrutinising why they arrived just as Mr Trump was losing his power and Democrats were poised to take control of Congress and the White House.

The bans have also turned up the heat on a free-speech debate that has been simmering for years. On Friday night, pro-Trump Republicans raged, claiming Twitter's move was an example of Silicon Valley's tyrannical speech controls.


THE SHAPERS OF PUBLIC DISCOURSE

And while many liberals cheered Twitter's decision as an overdue and appropriate step to prevent more violence, some also cringed at the thought of so much control resting in so few hands. "We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now," Ms Kate Ruane, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a statement on Friday. "But it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions - especially when political realities make those decisions easier."


Above all, Mr Trump's muzzling provides a clarifying lesson in where power resides in our digital society - not just in the precedent of law or the checks and balances of government, but in the ability to deny access to the platforms that shape our public discourse.

Mr Dorsey's and Mr Zuckerberg's names have never appeared on a ballot. But they have a kind of authority that no elected official on earth can claim.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong receives COVID-19 vaccine on 8 January 2021 as Singapore starts nationwide vaccination drive

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong receives first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, urges others to follow
PM Lee is the first Cabinet member to be vaccinated
By Joyce Teo, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2021

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rolled up his sleeve for the Covid-19 vaccine injection yesterday, as the nationwide vaccination effort to combat the coronavirus swung into high gear.

A left-hander, PM Lee was administered the shot in his right arm by nurse Fatimah Mohd Shah, and experienced no side effects despite a 30-minute precautionary wait.

"It is painless, it is effective and it is important," he told reporters at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), where he received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only one to be approved here so far.

"I hope that Singaporeans will take it up as we roll it out."


The Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak, as well as 88 healthcare staff, also received their shots yesterday, as the vaccination drive for healthcare workers and front-line staff gets under way.

The vaccine is free and will be rolled out progressively, with most people here able to get vaccinated by the end of the year.



Widespread vaccinations will be critical in ending the pandemic and allowing life to become more normal around the world.

While Covid-19 numbers in Singapore remain low, they have been inching up as measures were relaxed since phase three of reopening started on Dec 28.

Imported cases, in particular, have been on the rise, as more people are allowed into the country.

There were eight new cases in the community in the past week, and 10 the week before.


Yesterday, 8 Jan, there were 23 new coronavirus cases, taking Singapore's total to 58,836.

As the pandemic continues to rage around the world, countries are urgently rolling out Covid-19 vaccinations, with Britain the first to start a mass vaccination drive with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec 8.


PM Lee will be taking his second dose of the vaccine in three weeks.

"We have got ample vaccines coming in, we ordered them early. We have enough for everybody in Singapore, all the residents, all the citizens and even the non-citizens who are staying here," he said yesterday.

He added: "It will make us safer, and it will make you and your loved ones safer too. So, please take it when you get it."


Senior staff nurse Fatimah, 41, a veteran of almost 20 years at SGH, learnt the night before that she was going to be the one administering PM Lee's injection.

She was "a bit nervous", but said she felt honoured, her smile shining through her mask in the wefie that PM Lee took with her later.

PM Lee, who posted photos of his experience on Facebook, wrote: "In the gentle and capable hands of Senior Staff Nurse Fatimah. I barely felt the needle!"

Ms Chang Yan Jun, 25, a radiographer in SGH's emergency department, also got vaccinated yesterday. "At first, I was a bit nervous, but then, after taking the vaccine, I feel like actually, it is (okay). I don't have any (discomfort)," she said.

The vaccine was also rolled out to the staff at other public healthcare institutions such as Changi General Hospital and Sengkang General Hospital yesterday.

Staff at private healthcare group Parkway Pantai and Mount Alvernia and Farrer Park hospitals will get their shots starting today.

The Government has said that more vaccines are set to arrive soon, including those by American biotechnology firm Moderna and China's Sinovac.


Is the COVID-19 Vaccine safe for me?

More frequent tests, additional requirements likely for those who do not take COVID-19 vaccine: Lawrence Wong
By Ang Hwee Min, Channel NewsAsia, 8 Jan 2021

Individuals who choose not to take the COVID-19 vaccine may need to go through “more frequent testing”, said Minister for Education Lawrence Wong on Thursday (Jan 7). 

In an interview on CNA’s Talking Point, the co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force spoke of "tangible benefits" for those who choose to get vaccine shots.

“It may well be, if the data validates all the hypotheses, that transmission risk can be significantly reduced. It may well be that travellers coming back need not serve SHN (stay-home notice) or will serve a shorter SHN. So those will be the benefits of getting a vaccination besides the fact that you are protecting yourself and your loved ones,” he added. 

“There will be these tangible benefits and those who choose not to be vaccinated, well, then you have to live with more frequent tests, you have to live with quarantine, you have to live with all of these other additional requirements.”


EARLY BETS TO SECURE VACCINES

Mr Wong also explained why the vaccine made by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac was picked as one of the three vaccines to be used in Singapore.

The vaccine is 78 per cent effective in protecting against the coronavirus, according to the results of a study announced on Thursday by Brazilian state health officials. More than 12,000 health workers in Brazil participated in the study.

The Government convened an expert panel to look at making early purchases of vaccines “as early as April”, Mr Wong said.

“We have to make early bets in order for Singapore to be near the front of the queue for vaccines. And that's what is happening today.”

At the time, there was no clinical data or “full-fledged information” available from any vaccine company, said Mr Wong.


With only "very early stage clinical information" available, the committee and experts narrowed down the selections to 35 vaccine candidates. They eventually decided on the three vaccines - Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac - based on safety and effectiveness based on the preliminary data that was available then, he added.

“And that's the three that we have made advanced purchases for, with the aim of building a diversified portfolio of vaccines that will be safe and effective for use in Singapore,” said Mr Wong.

When asked by Talking Point host Steve Chia if this approach by Singapore could be characterised as "hedging (its) chances", Mr Wong replied: "Very much so."

According to the Economic Development Board (EDB), the vaccine panel made its first advance purchase agreement with Moderna in June, securing it with a downpayment. In August, it bought the Sinovac vaccine and was in advance talks with Pfizer-BioNTech.

Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA) eventually approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine first. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in a televised address on Dec 15, 2020 that the first shipment would arrive by the end of December, with other vaccines expected in the coming months. 


The panel intends to continue to see whether it can make further purchases to add to the vaccine portfolio, said Mr Wong.

“That's our overall approach. It's not to make a single bet, we know that we've made some early bets, some may turn out positive as I think Pfizer has now been authorised, Moderna looks like it's going to be, it has been approved in America,” he added.

“We are looking at the data, we will await that data full data from Sinovac and then the process will continue for other vaccine candidates.”


VACCINE SAFETY

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use the new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, while Sinovac is a traditional inactivated virus vaccine.

mRNA vaccines teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies, said director of communicable diseases at the Ministry of Health (MOH) Associate Professor Vernon Lee. This is different from traditional vaccines that put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies.


“This is basically the key - the actual mRNA degrades very quickly in the body, so body temperature will only remain for about 48 hours. And thereafter, there's no additional component of the vaccine that remains in the individual,” added Assoc Prof Lee, who was also speaking on Talking Point.

Although the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one approved so far, as additional vaccines come onboard, there will be some vaccines that can or cannot be used in certain subpopulations, he added.

For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cannot be used in people who have severe allergic reactions or a history of anaphylaxis, said Assoc Prof Lee. For now, children under 16, pregnant women and individuals who are severely immunocompromised are also excluded from using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“Other vaccines might be able to be used in different populations. So we need to wait for more information, and it is which vaccine is more ... applicable or relevant to that particular population if it's offered, we will encourage people to get that vaccine,” he added.

The third guest on Talking Point, Associate Professor Benjamin Ong, senior vice president (Health Education & Resources) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the data for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is “most complete”, and experts are “confident enough” to recommend its use in Singapore’s setting.


Friday, 8 January 2021

Matched Retirement Savings Scheme: 440,000 CPF members eligible for new scheme with government matching retirement account top-ups

Govt will match cash top-ups of up to $600 a year in their CPF Retirement Account for 5 years from 2021 to 2025
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jan 2021

Thousands of people are set to get matching sums of up to $600 a year to top up their Central Provident Fund (CPF) Retirement Account, under a new scheme which kicks off this year.

The move to help more older CPF members attain the Basic Retirement Sum and provide them with retirement adequacy comes through the Matched Retirement Savings Scheme, which will benefit some 440,000 people. They account for about 53 per cent of CPF members aged between 55 and 70, said the CPF Board yesterday.

The scheme allows anyone, including family members, employers or members of the community, to make top-ups to a person's Retirement Account. Each dollar of cash top-up will be matched by the Government for the next five years, capped at $600 per year.

Top-ups can be made on the CPF website or mobile app. They also do not have to be made in a lump sum. This means that those who make small and regular top-ups throughout the year using Giro can receive the matching grant.


CPF Board chief executive Augustin Lee said: "About half of CPF members turning 55 today have yet to attain the Basic Retirement Sum. This matching grant by the Government will encourage them to save more with CPF.

"There's no better savings interest rate than what CPF pays now. We hope their loved ones and the wider community can also pitch in. Even small amounts saved consistently can go a long way in securing CPF members' retirement needs."

Those who are eligible for the scheme must be between 55 and 70 years old, and have less than the Basic Retirement Sum of $93,000 this year in their Retirement Account.

Other criteria include average monthly income, annual value of their residence, and property ownership.

Eligible members will be notified by the CPF Board this month. They can also check their eligibility on the CPF website.

Ms Selena Ling, OCBC Bank's head of treasury research and strategy, said: "Retirement adequacy concerns are increasingly pertinent for an ageing population like Singapore's... While current inflationary pressures are mild due to the pandemic, nevertheless, inflation levels are expected to return to positive territory this year and Singaporeans are also living longer."

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from the National University of Singapore Business School added: "The matching incentive will help develop a habit of augmenting the retirement funds early in the CPF contributor's life."

The CPF Board is also partnering grassroots leaders to encourage the community to build up the retirement savings of the vulnerable.

Donors from Bukit Timah pitched in to help 100 residents, with the first batch of top-ups made yesterday.