Saturday 29 May 2021

Singapore planning for possible future where COVID-19 is endemic: Lawrence Wong

$800 million COVID-19 support package for Singapore firms and workers, including more wage subsidies, rental relief during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

Singapore has started planning for the possibility that Covid-19 may become endemic here, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

This could mean Singaporeans will need to get booster jabs from time to time, he noted.

In the coming months, better treatments could also be developed for the disease, making it less of something to fear, he added at a virtual media conference.

But even then, the country may have to take basic precautions - for example, with regard to ventilation systems and buildings - to minimise the risk of infection.

"When will it happen? I really can't say," Mr Wong replied in response to a reporter's question on when the virus will be considered endemic here.

"But we are indeed planning for a plausible scenario down the road where scientists around the world... come to the conclusion that it is not going to be possible to eradicate this virus - it is never going to go away, and we then have to learn to live with it."

The minister was speaking at a media conference to announce extra help for individuals and businesses impacted by the tightened measures on social interaction. The $800 million package of support measures will be debated at the next Parliament sitting in July.

At the virtual event, Mr Wong was asked how Singaporeans might go about their daily lives in the coming years, given that it seems difficult to picture the current restrictions on mask wearing and social gatherings lasting for a long time.

"I can't even predict what is going to happen next month," he replied. "So, I don't know that it is so easy to tell you what is going to happen years down the road because the situation is really very uncertain."

$800 million COVID-19 support package to help firms, workers
It includes enhanced wage subsidies, rental relief, one-off payouts to eligible workers
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

Announcing the measures yesterday, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said affected gyms, fitness studios, and performing arts and arts education centres will get 50 per cent of salary support for local employees under the JSS - the same as what food and beverage operators are currently receiving.

Sectors that do not have to suspend operations but are significantly affected by the measures will get 30 per cent of JSS subsidies.

This will help retailers, personal care service providers, museums, art galleries, historical sites, cinemas, indoor playgrounds and other family entertainment centres.

However, supermarkets, convenience stores and online retailers will not be eligible for the enhanced wage support.

Rental relief will be given to eligible small and medium-sized enterprises as well as non-profit organisations in qualifying commercial properties, Mr Wong said.

Eligible lower-and middle-income workers and self-employed workers whose income has been affected can also receive a one-off payout of up to $700 under a new temporary grant.

The Ministry of Finance (MOF) said yesterday that the enhanced JSS payouts, which are based on wages paid from April to next month, will be disbursed in September.

Employers who put local employees on mandatory no-pay leave or retrench them will not be eligible for JSS payouts for those employees, MOF said.

"I would encourage businesses to make full use of their enhanced JSS to retain and pay their workers during this period," said Mr Wong.

Instead, they will be funded through a reallocation of spending.

Some development expenditure can be funded by the Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act (SINGA), which allows the Government to fund long-term infrastructure projects through borrowing, said MOF.

This was not reflected in the budgeted expenditure as the SINGA Bill was passed on May 10, after the February Budget.

A Supplementary Supply Bill will be tabled at the next Parliament sitting in July to effect the reallocation of spending.

Speaking at a virtual media conference, Mr Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, said the tightened measures are having an effect in controlling the spread of the virus.

"Therefore, we do not think there is a need for further tightening in our overall posture," he said, adding that the task force will give a fuller update on Monday.

If there are further extensions of the restrictions beyond June 13, MOF will consider whether support measures can be similarly extended, he said.

He noted that the financial support package handed out this time round is not on the same scale as those allocated last year.

This is because most parts of the economy are still operating, and there are also more government schemes, like the Jobs Growth Incentive, to support new opportunities.

Last year, close to $100 billion was dedicated to Covid-19 support measures over five Budgets, with up to $52 billion drawn from the reserves.

Mr Wong said Singapore must expect to encounter situations like this from time to time, where restrictions need to be tightened temporarily in response to occasional outbreaks.

COVID-19 Recovery Grant (Temporary) (CRG-T): New grant of up to $700 for lower-wage workers hit by latest curbs, during the period between 16 May 2021 and 30 June 2021
Applications will be open from 3 June 2021 to 2 July 2021
By Kok Yufeng, The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

Lower-and middle-income workers who are financially affected by the latest Covid-19 restrictions may receive a one-time payout of up to $700 under a new temporary grant, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) said yesterday.

The grant also covers those who are self-employed.

Eligible workers who have been placed on involuntary no-pay leave for at least a month during the period from May 16 to June 30, or who have suffered income loss of at least 50 per cent for at least a month over the same period, may apply for the Covid-19 Recovery Grant (Temporary) (CRG-T).

MOF said that the grant, part of an $800 million support package to help individuals and businesses amid the current heightened alert period, is being introduced as the livelihoods of some workers in the food and beverage, retail, and sports and fitness sectors have been affected.

Under the grant, eligible individuals placed on involuntary no-pay leave may receive a one-off payout of up to $700, while those experiencing significant income loss may receive a one-off payout of up to $500. MOF said applications will be open from June 3 to July 2.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will release more details shortly.

The CRG-T is a supplement to the Covid-19 Recovery Grant (CRG), which was launched on Jan 18 to support lower-and middle-income workers and self-employed people affected by the pandemic, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said at a media conference yesterday.

"There are certain conditions and criteria attached to the CRG. We are not changing that," Mr Wong said. "But we are, in a way, piggybacking on the existing scheme with a temporary scheme with different conditions specific to the current heightened alert situation, where activities have been scaled back and there are these additional restrictions.

"So, this is temporary, it is meant for this particular period. After that, we will continue with the regular CRG scheme."

The CRG, which was extended by three months in March, provides up to $700 a month for three months to workers who have lost their jobs or been placed on involuntary no-pay leave owing to the impact of Covid-19.

For lower-and middle-income workers and self-employed people facing income loss of at least 50 per cent for at least three consecutive months, the CRG provides up to $500 a month for three months.

Past CRG recipients can qualify for the CRG-T if they meet the relevant criteria, but those who are receiving CRG support for the month of June will not be eligible.

The MOF yesterday also highlighted measures for the transport sector that were announced earlier. Private-hire and taxi drivers will get additional cash support of $10 per vehicle per day for the period of May 16 until the end of next month, with the Government setting aside $27 million as a one-off top-up to the Covid-19 Driver Relief Fund.

Meanwhile, Changi Airport Group is fully waiving rental fees for retailers in its terminals from May 13 to June 13, when the airport remains closed to the public.

Singapore will not dip into reserves to fund new COVID-19 support package, says Lawrence Wong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

Singapore will not dip into its reserves to fund a new $800 million Covid-19 support package, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.

Instead, it will pay for the package by reallocating development expenditure, some of which can be capitalised under the recently passed Significant Infrastructure Government Loan Act.

Mr Wong said yesterday that he would introduce a Supplementary Supply Bill at the next Parliament sitting in July to effect the reallocation of spending.

Explaining the decision, he said that Singapore's circumstances are very different from what they were last year, when an unprecedented five Budgets were rolled out to help keep workers in jobs and businesses afloat at the height of the pandemic.

This year, most parts of the economy are still operating, he said. Businesses and individuals have learnt to adapt, while other Government schemes such as the Jobs Growth Incentive are helping to create new opportunities for Singaporeans.

In fact, the country must expect to run into situations like this from time to time - when restrictions have to be temporarily tightened after an occasional outbreak of community cases, he said.

"So, we will have to learn to adapt to such situations using our own resources, rather than to dip into our past reserves."

The package, aimed at businesses and workers affected by the tightened Covid-19 restrictions, includes rental reliefs and enhanced wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme.

Mr Wong was asked if there would be scope for further reallocation of funds from development expenditure, should further support packages be needed.

He replied that the move is intended as a "one-off exercise" rather than recurrent ongoing expenditure. "If it were, I think we would run into difficulties."

Should Singapore encounter a similar situation in the future, it will have to look at various factors - such as the scale of the outbreak and extent of the restrictions required - to decide its next steps, Mr Wong said.

If the outbreak is relatively insignificant, Singapore should be able to "find some ways to reprioritise, and do a package of a similar scale - or maybe a bit smaller - just to help business tide along".

The hope is that businesses, too, will find ways to adapt and include such contingencies in their business community plans, he said.

But if the outbreak is much larger and requires restrictions to be tightened, reallocation would not yield sufficient resources to cover a support package, which would have to be greater in scope.

"Under such an emergency scenario, we will have to consider possibly going to the President and seeking permission to draw on past reserves," he said.


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