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."

COVID-19 vaccine will not be reserved for Singaporeans who choose to wait and see: Lawrence Wong
Jabs will go to those next in line, may not be readily available in future for people who wait
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2021

Supplies of the Covid-19 vaccine will not be reserved for people who choose to wait when their turn to get the jab comes, said Mr Lawrence Wong, co-chair of a multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic.

Instead, the vaccines will go to whoever is next in line.

This is because Singapore's aim is to get everyone vaccinated as soon as it can, said Mr Wong, who is also Education Minister.

"For those who choose not to take (it) up, it is your choice. But we will roll out and push out the vaccines regardless," he added in a media conference on Tuesday.

"If you want to wait, you must accept the consequence that perhaps if you wait... and you want to take it up later on, we may not have a ready supply."

Singapore's nationwide vaccination effort is now well under way, with priority going to healthcare staff, as well as those working in the aviation and maritime sectors.

It has received several shipments of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, and expects to get more vaccines from other manufacturers in the coming months.

If everything goes according to plan, the country will have enough vaccines for all citizens and long-term residents by the third quarter of this year.

Addressing reporters to mark one year of Singapore's battle with Covid-19, Mr Wong said Singapore sends out each batch of vaccine as soon as it gets a fresh supply.

"We are not trying to hold back or ration the supply. It is not in Singapore's interest to do that," he said. "Our interest is to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible."

Added Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, the task force's other co-chair: "We are not going to reserve some for you if you decide not to be vaccinated."

If the scientific evidence indicates that vaccines significantly reduce the risk of transmission, the Government could make changes to existing rules, Mr Wong said.

For example, the stay-home notice period for travellers might be reduced or eliminated, while workers who currently have to undergo routine testing could have this requirement reduced.

Singapore might also further relax its safe management measures.

At present, however, it is not yet known by how much the vaccine can reduce the risk of viral transmission, so the tangible and concrete benefits of vaccination - like being able to travel without quarantine - cannot be reaped while the information is still pending, said Mr Wong.

When asked how the Government would convince reluctant Singaporeans to take the vaccine, Mr Gan stressed the importance of public education.

For seniors, the authorities will probably go from house to house, explaining the benefits of getting vaccinated and helping people to make bookings, he said.

Mr Gan urged Singaporeans to think hard about holding back on vaccination.

"Today, our number of cases is low. Some may have the misperception that it is quite safe, so it really doesn't matter," he said.

"But we must remember that the rest of the world is still burning up.

"We still have new cases every day and new records being set almost every other day."

Vaccinations will also help speed up Singapore's progress towards a more substantial reopening, added Mr Gan.

Both ministers were also asked how they felt after getting vaccinated earlier this month.

"I feel perfectly fine," Mr Gan replied. "That is why we are here."

"Kim Yong texted me, 'Is your arm sore?' " Mr Wong added.

"I said: 'Yah, mine is quite sore. So, we both had sore arms. That is all."

Fighting the unknown: COVID-19 task force co-chairs Gan Kim Yong, Lawrence Wong sum up challenges
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2021

Over the course of the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way Singaporeans live, work and play.

In a 90-minute interview on Tuesday at the National Press Centre in Hill Street, the two ministers jointly chairing the task force tackling the crisis summed up the challenges they faced over the past 12 months.

These included dealing with uncertainty, implementing their ideas and communicating the reasons for their decisions.

Facing the unknown

When Covid-19 cases first began emerging in Singapore, most people who showed respiratory symptoms were given a five-day medical certificate. Return to get tested only if your symptoms persist, they were told.

This advice was later proved wrong when scientific evidence showed that the coronavirus can be transmitted even when a person appears perfectly healthy.

That misstep taught Singapore that it cannot rely entirely on lessons learnt from earlier outbreaks, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said. Instead, the country had to adapt its modus operandi very quickly to the reality on the ground as more data emerged.

"One thing we have to bear in mind is that the next outbreak will, again, be very different from this one," Mr Gan added. "If we simply replicate what we do today and assume that we have already learnt the lesson... I think the outcome would probably again be different."

Mr Lawrence Wong, who was appointed the Education Minister midway through the pandemic in July last year, after being the minister for national development since September 2015, said that "bumps along the road" were inevitable when faced with so many unknowns.

"Clearly, if we had a better picture then, you know, we would have taken different measures," he said. "The key, as I have said before, is that we have to be quick to adapt, to adjust, to be nimble, put things right, recover from setbacks and move forward. And that is the attitude we have."

When asked which decisions they felt the greatest uncertainty about making, the ministers brought up the circuit breaker, which kicked in on April 7 and was lifted on June 2.

This drastic measure would significantly impact livelihoods and individuals' well-being, while the benefits were uncertain, Mr Wong said, on weighing the decision. "On balance, would it do more harm than good? Or would we be able to address effectively (and) slow down the transmission?"

The timing of the circuit breaker was also a matter of much debate.

If it was called too soon, Mr Gan said, Singapore might have faced the prospect of a second circuit breaker later that year. But put in place too late, and Covid-19 clusters could have shot up.

"We needed to time it, but we can never be perfect in timing," he added. "So, we just had to have a sense, make a judgment."

When Singapore first began its gradual reopening, the opposite debate took place. In particular, the task force was leery of allowing people to visit one another's homes, especially when these visits involved the elderly.

"We were initially unsure. What if we allowed it and something happened?" Mr Wong asked. "On the other hand, if you don't allow and people remain isolated, is that good for their well-being? So, it was a very difficult judgment call either way."

The Government will be doing a full review of its systems and processes after this pandemic is over, he added.

"Just as we have learnt from Sars... after Covid-19, we want to learn from this experience, to do even better and be better prepared for the next pandemic - and for Disease X in the future."

Implementing the rules

Each time the task force briefed the Cabinet on measures it intended to take, it would receive a flurry of ideas and suggestions.

But on one occasion, Mr Wong recounted, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told him: "You know, we can give you ideas. But in the end, you have to decide what can be executed, what can be implemented."

His advice encapsulated one of the task force's key challenges: Translating plans into reality given the limited resources on hand, and making rules that would be easily applied across the board.

One example was the rule on social gatherings, which are currently limited to eight people.

Mr Gan pointed out that a household of 10 would face no increased risk of contracting the virus if they shared a single table in a restaurant, given that they already lived together.

"But at the same time, it is very difficult to enforce on the ground, very difficult to explain to the table next door that you are from the same family," he said. "And it is very challenging for waiters to have to check your NRICs to make sure that you stay together."

The task force opted for measures that were simple to understand and implement, Mr Gan said.

The ministers faced a similar problem when dealing with the issue of widespread infections in migrant worker dormitories, where case numbers rose quickly and went into the thousands.

Asked what they would have done differently, Mr Wong replied: "We would have done what we are doing today in the dorms."

In other words, migrant workers would have been put on a regular Covid-19 testing regime, he said, adding: "We would have taken far more measures than we had at that time, obviously."

The challenge was that Singapore did not, at the time, have the capability to test at the level it is doing today.

"We had limited test kits, we had limited resources in terms of manpower," Mr Wong said.

"Each time you deploy a resource to a particular area, it means that you don't have resources to deploy to another area. So, it is one thing to wish to do everything, but it is another to have the resources to execute and implement it well."

The country is now in a stronger position, with better defences and improved testing and tracing capabilities, but it must remain vigilant, Mr Wong said. "Better doesn't mean perfect," he hastened to add. "Better doesn't mean you will be 100 per cent foolproof."

The art of communication

It was one thing to implement plans, but another thing to convince people of their necessity - especially when these decisions proved unpopular.

For one thing, as more was learnt about the disease, Singapore had to continually adjust its approach and communicate the reasons for the new measures, Mr Gan said.

He gave the examples of the implementation of the circuit breaker and the raising of the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition level to orange, both of which were addressed by PM Lee in separate speeches to the nation.

Communication became especially challenging when people became caught up in the prevailing mood of the time, Mr Wong added.

Early last year, for instance, some segments of the public called for the Government to impose very strict safe distancing measures, in the hope that life would return to normal a month later.

"We had to tell people, 'No, look, this is a long fight. It is a marathon, and whatever we do has to be sustainable, and our measures are based on data, based on evidence,' " Mr Wong recalled.

Then, the pendulum swung the other way in October, after Singapore saw no community cases for a sustained period.

"The mood was: Why don't we open up faster? Why are we still doing all these phase two measures? When can we get to phase three?" Mr Wong said.

"And we had to explain the opposite, that... we are doing okay, but the virus is still circulating. And if we were to relax too quickly, it is very easy for a resurgence of cases to come back."

These shifts in public sentiment are not unique to Singapore. But they pose a continuing challenge even today, as the country works to chart a steady course based on scientific evidence, he noted.

Did public opinion have an impact on the task force's decision-making process?

Mr Wong said that in coming up with measures to keep Singapore safe, the task force first has to take into account public health requirements. A decision is made after experts are consulted and the scientific evidence is studied.

Public sentiments are considered later, when the discussion turns to communicating what has to be done.

"How do you explain why we may not be able to move on something even though the public demands it? Or why, you know, we may have to do certain things that may not be so readily acceptable or so readily understood?" Mr Wong said.

"So, the challenges are in that area - rather than influencing what is necessary and the right thing to do from a public health point of view."

Overseas travel to remain difficult even after all in Singapore get COVID-19 vaccine: Gan Kim Yong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2021

International travel will not revert to normal even after everyone in Singapore has been vaccinated as travel depends on the global Covid-19 situation, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

When it does resume, it is likely to take place progressively, through bilateral arrangements, which could then expand into regional arrangements, he added.

"This is a bit like a circuit breaker," said Mr Gan, who co-chairs the multi-ministerial task force handling the crisis. "It is not going to be, flip a switch and (it is) free for everybody to travel."

He was responding to a question on whether Singaporeans can expect to travel in the next 12 months, during a media conference to mark one year of Singapore's battle with Covid-19.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, the task force's other co-chair, acknowledged that many people hope that vaccination will allow them to travel without quarantine restrictions.

But at present, Singapore is still studying the evidence and is not yet ready to change the rules, he said.

In any case, the country is likely to be in "pandemic mode" for the next 12 to 18 months, even if certain safe distancing measures are eased in that time, Mr Wong added.

"Even if the majority of people in Singapore get vaccinated, it is impossible for the world to be vaccinated by this year," he said. "Which means that all around us, there will be countries where the virus may very well still be raging."

He also pointed out that the International Air Transport Association has predicted that passenger volumes are not expected to return to pre-coronavirus levels until at least 2024.

"The whole recovery is not a one-year issue... it is more like a four-year affair before you see some of these industries recovering back to where they were before," Mr Wong said.

"So, that is the picture for aviation and travel, and we have to be realistic that this is what it is, and it will have some impact on our own industries, particularly those that are reliant on aviation and tourism."

At some point - perhaps over the next four to five years - the pandemic will pass and the economy will slowly recover, Mr Wong added.

But Mr Gan cautioned that the next pandemic could take place in that time.

He urged Singaporeans to keep up the good hygiene habits they developed over the past year, adding: "Before we celebrate... you have to always be vigilant that the next pandemic is just a short distance away."

'He's literally on my speed dial': Lawrence Wong, Gan Kim Yong on working together to fight COVID-19
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2021

If there is one thing Health Minister Gan Kim Yong has learnt about Education Minister Lawrence Wong, it is that he is a decisive man.

"I look at the way he discusses and raises issues and makes decisions," said Mr Gan, 61.

"Once the facts are clear, we will have no ifs and buts. Just move, and get it done."

And for Mr Wong, 48, his senior colleague has been a "great mentor" with whom he has worked closely since both men became co-chairmen of the multi-ministerial task force tackling the pandemic.

"He is literally on my speed dial. I disturb him all the time because, after all, I am coming in cold," Mr Wong said, referring to how he was relatively new to the healthcare scene.

The ministers were speaking to reporters on Tuesday at a media conference to mark one year of Covid-19 in Singapore.

They had been asked how their impressions of one another had changed over the last 12 months.

"Somehow, I don't know why, I have been tied to Kim Yong in different ways, even before Covid-19," Mr Wong responded.

He succeeded Mr Gan as the PAP Community Foundation's management council chairman in 2015, and took over his role as the Singapore Labour Foundation's chairman in 2018. Mr Gan guided him in both transitions, said Mr Wong.

Part of his role as co-chairman of the task force involves thinking out of the box, he added, as he is not within the Health Ministry (MOH).

"From time to time, I will just call him up, brainstorm, throw up ideas," said Mr Wong.

"And he is always open-minded... helping me to understand better what the science is, what MOH's opinion is, and then together we have been able to think through and brainstorm, and come up with solutions together."

To that, Mr Gan added that he was "very happy" to be working with "a very decisive co-chairman".


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