COVID-19: Election Night crowds will potentially have 'consequence', says Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — The raucous crowds that gathered at multiple locations across Singapore on Election Night may potentially have consequences for the number of COVID-19 infections in the country, admitted Lawrence Wong, co-chair of Singapore’s multi-ministry taskforce on the coronavirus, on Friday evening (17 July).

Wong, who is also National Development Minister, was asked during the virtual press conference whether the country could expect an uptick in the number of infections, given the disregard for safe distancing on the night of 10 July, when many gathered to celebrate the General Election results.

“There were these scenes of people coming together to celebrate. Ideally, they would have practised safe distancing. The people who were there, they know who they are. But I think the moment got the better of them, and they perhaps forgot about some of these requirements,” acknowledged the minister.

“From the pictures I've seen, all of them were wearing masks. They may not have kept to the rule of five. And if we can find out who they are, and we have a means to, we might be able to identify and take them to task. If you look at the numbers, there are quite a number of them, but if you look at the contact that they had, I'm not sure that they were in close contact for a very long time.”

Wong added there could be a consequence for the safe-distancing lapses by individuals.

“It comes down to the basic point: any time there are lapses, by any individuals, there will be a consequence, potentially,” he said. “And all of us just need to remember that... any time anyone decides to abandon caution, thinks that, ‘It's okay, I do not need to abide by the safe distancing measures’, they put themselves, and they put the whole country at risk.

“Unfortunately, this appears to have happened in that particular incident, and I would imagine it would not be the end of it. There will be many other incidents where lapses do occur.”

 Supporters of the Workers' Party cheering at Hougang Avenue 5 in the early hours of 11 July, 2020, hours after the GE2020 polls have ended.  (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)
Supporters of the Workers' Party cheering at Hougang Avenue 5 in the early hours of 11 July 2020, hours after the GE2020 polls have ended. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)

No change in enforcement stance

The virtual briefing by the multi-ministry taskforce took place on the same day that the Ministry of Health (MOH) preliminarily reported 327 more COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 41,453.

Earlier in the briefing – which was chaired by Wong, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and director of medical services Kenneth Mak – the taskforce was asked whether it still believed it was safe to hold an election, in light of the large crowds that formed and the delays at polling stations that resulted in long queues and the extension of voting hours.

The decision to hold a GE amid the pandemic was labelled as opportunist and reckless by several opposition parties.

However, Wong believes that the Elections Department did its very best to conduct the GE in a safe manner.

“They have recognised publicly there were areas that can be improved and they have said that they are reviewing all of these areas,” he said. “But by and large, if you look at the actual conduct of polling, and all of us were around including members of the media, these are conducted in open spaces.

“The time spent, even if you were queuing up, it's not as though there was close contact in terms of touching and talking. People were spaced apart and then went in, (they did not) talk to anyone in a very prolonged manner, and then they cast their vote. And there were sanitisers provided, a whole range of different safety protocols were put in place.

“Whether or not anything happens after this, whether there will be any case emerging, we will not know now... Let's not jump to the conclusion, just because we see queues forming. Queues form everywhere, not just when people go and cast the votes.”

Enforcement not possible when people in ‘celebratory mood’

The taskforce was also asked whether there had been a change in enforcement policies, given that police officers on the ground on Election Night did not move in to disperse crowds. Wong said that there had been no shift in policy.

“No amount of enforcement can work if the whole country wants to go for a celebration,” he said. “How? What amount of enforcement will be effective if everyone is in a celebratory mood and want to go out and have a big party? It's not possible. So enforcement is important, measures are important, but individual responsibility is key.”

There have been multiple instances of individuals and organisations being fined, jailed and/or deported for failing to observe safe distancing measures, ever since Singapore’s partial lockdown began on 7 April, and also after it was progressively lifted.

In one of the most recent cases, a 30-year-old man was fined for flinging a packet of newly bought masks at an enforcement officer’s face, upon being confronted for not wearing a mask,

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