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SINGAPORE — A total of 38,000 people in Singapore are currently serving the mandatory 14-day stay-home notices and the figure is expected to rise with more returning here, as the Republic enters a “critical phase” in its fight against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, around 2,500 others are under quarantine either at home or in government quarantine facilities as of Tuesday night.
These figures were revealed during a ministerial statement on the coronavirus pandemic delivered by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong in Parliament on Wednesday (25 March).
All Singapore residents and long-term pass holders returning from overseas apart from Hubei province must serve the 14-day stay-home notice, while those returning from Hubei must serve a 14-day quarantine.
All short-term visitors are barred from entering or transiting via Singapore.
During his speech, Wong reiterated the stricter measures announced a day earlier to lessen the risk of those returning to Singapore from potentially spreading the infection.
These include focussing on those returning from the US and UK, arranging for them to be transported from the airport directly to serve out the notice in designated hotels and tighter security arrangements to ensure they do not leave the rooms.
Carrying out these measures requires “a huge operational and logistical undertaking”, said Wong, who is also the co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce here, adding that about 1,200 Singapore residents return daily from the US and UK.
While the authorities can make use of empty bed spaces in hotels, manpower has to be “ramped up” to enforce these measures, he noted.
“I want to acknowledge the hard work of all our public officials who did an excellent job in getting this ready within a very short period of time,” Wong said. “With more lockdowns imposed in countries elsewhere, more (Singaporeans) may want to return here to Singapore and we should welcome them.”
Around 200,000 Singaporeans are based overseas.
“And there's no telling how long this current wave of returnees and imported cases will last,” he added.
Wong reiterated the government’s advisory for Singaporeans to defer all travel overseas and highlighted that those who do will have to pay full costs should they need treatment for the virus when they return to Singapore.
They would also need to pay full costs incurred for the 14-day self-isolation at designated hotels if they come back from the UK and the US.
On Tuesday, Singapore confirmed 49 cases of the virus, bringing the total to 558; 17 remain in the intensive care unit while two have died.
About 80 per cent of new cases announced over the past week were imported from countries other than China, with most of them having recently travelled to the UK, the US, and Indonesia.
Contract tracing ‘critical’, ‘essential’
On the “ramping up” of manpower for contact tracing here, Wong called it essential to manage the situation.
“This is the situation that many countries are facing now – they are no longer able to contact trace the cases as well as close contacts,” he added.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, the second taskforce co-chair, earlier in his ministerial statement stated that the number of contract tracing teams has expanded from three to 20, which can trace up to 4,000 contacts each day.
Wong said, “We will continue with tough enforcement for both stay-home notice and quarantine cases, including through remote monitoring (via handphones), video calls and random house visits.”
Under the Infectious Diseases Act, those who breach the requirements can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed a maximum of six months, or both.
While Singapore has an “excellent” detection system to pick up COVID-19 cases via contact tracing, described by a Harvard study as “the gold standard”, Wong stressed that the detection rate here is “not 100 per cent”.
“That means that the virus continues to circulate in our population and there are still cases out there in the community which will pop up,” added Wong.
As such, local transmissions are of “greater concern”, especially those with no established links, he said, noting that Singapore is seeing more of such unlinked cases in recent days.
“That's why we need to put in place a whole range of additional public health measures to slow down the spread of the virus within Singapore itself,” said Wong.
Some employers ‘resistant’ to telecommuting
Such additional measures include “baseline” precautions, like daily temperature taking and not shaking hands, as well as social distancing ones, extra brakes” like allowing one-metre spacing in public venues and suspension of senior group activities.
Some baseline precautions should continue even after the outbreak, Wong said. “I'm not sure about the not shaking hands part, frankly, I think at some point in time, we might want to get back to having some physical content, but certainly not now.”
While social distancing measures, such as telecommuting and staggered hours, are being progressively implemented across public sector agencies, Wong stressed that they must go beyond the public sector.
All workplaces must go on “telecommuting as default wherever they can”, he said.
“More employers are doing this, but some are still resistant and still want their staff to be physically present in offices when they can work from home,” he noted.
“This is the only way to allow Singaporeans to continue working while minimising their movement and contact outside. And it's also how we can reduce the load on our public transport system.”
Public health first, economy second
Other social distancing measures introduced last week have brought about perceptible changes, such as fewer crowded venues and alternate seatings marked in dining venues, including hawker centres and coffee shops, Wong noted.
But he stressed that Singapore has to move “much faster”.
“We still hear anecdotes of people going to discos, nightclubs, and gathering in large groups – and our big, big worry is that these can become super spreader events, spawning new clusters and potential runaway outbreaks,” said Wong.
Such concerns have led to the government announcing tighter social distancing measures on Tuesday with the aim of capping social gatherings to 10 people. They will take effect from 11.59pm on Thursday till end-April, comprising “two incubation cycles”.
These include the suspension of entertainment venues, tuition centres, religious services as well as cancellation or deferment of any mass events such as concerts or conferences.
“That is the reality that countries everywhere are facing in tackling the virus – the more we try to stop or slow down the virus, the steeper will be the damage on our economies,” said Wong.
“We have to do what is necessary from the public health point of view first – to save lives, slow down the virus, and thereafter do our best to manage the economic consequences.”
‘Critical’ phase in fight against COVID-19
Describing Singapore’s situation as a “critical phase” in its fight against the virus, Wong said that while the latest measures may help to slow down the spread of COVID-19, it is also possible for the introduction of more drastic ones as cases continue to rise.
These would include suspending of schools and closure of some workplaces, aside from those providing essential services.
“We will keep the measures under constant review,” he added.
“If the situation worsens, we will apply extra brakes. If the situation improves, we may be able to ease off a little bit, but not go back to baseline, perhaps to a less stringent set of measures, because the pandemic will probably still not be over for quite some time.”
He also called on Singaporeans to refrain from unnecessarily building up stockpiles of essential supplies, which may deprive others who may need them more urgently.
The situation with Malaysia, where a movement control order was imposed earlier this month, has now stabilised with the flow of goods and cargo – including food supplies – largely continuing, said Wong.
A joint mitigation plan to ensure the safe and sustainable movement of people, goods and essential services between the two countries is being discussed by the Singapore-Malaysia special working committee, co-chaired by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and his Malaysian counterpart Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
But Singapore has to be prepared that there may be disruptions along the way, Wong said, noting Malaysia’s announcement to extend the order to 14 April from 31 March on Tuesday afternoon.
But even as the control order eventually lifts in Malaysia, Singapore cannot go back to business as usual and have large groups of people move across the Woodlands and Tuas land checkpoints daily, he added.
About 300,000 travel across these checkpoints every day. “That will be too dangerous, from a public health point of view,” said Wong.
“We will need extra precautions on both sides, which are being worked out, so as to minimise the spread of the virus across our land borders, especially during peak hours.”
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