White Paper on COVID response publishes 6 areas that could have been better handled

Migrant worker dorms, border measures, mask policy listed as where the Singapore government came up short

With the release of the White Paper on Singapore's COVID-19 response, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said the pandemic was
With the release of the White Paper on Singapore's COVID-19 response, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said the pandemic was "a very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale". (FILE PHOTOS: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The Prime Minister's Office has published a White Paper on Wednesday (8 March) on a review of the Singapore government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It outlined eight areas in which the city-state did well in relation to responses from other countries, as well as six areas where it could have better handled the pandemic situation. It also identified seven lessons for future pandemics and other national crises.

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong told CNA that COVID-19 has been “a very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale”, and has required the government to operate in the “fog of war”.

“We made our best judgment at that time, but of course, with the benefit of hindsight and what we know today, we probably could have handled certain situations differently," he said.

The White Paper will be debated at the next sitting of Parliament on 20 March.


1. Keeping healthcare system resilient

Different levels of care facilities were created. Hospitals converted wards to isolation beds while less-ill patients went to community care and recovery facilities.

2. Successful nationwide vaccination campaign

To secure timely access to vaccines, Singapore signed advance purchase agreements and made early down payments on promising candidates such as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. By August 2021, 80 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated.

3. Ensured supply chain resilience

The government maintained the supply of essential goods through measures such as pre-emptive stockpiling and securing sea shipping. Emergency procurement measures were activated, while port and land links were kept open for the flow of goods.

4. Supported businesses, jobs and workers

The government introduced temporary relief measures including rental rebates, bridging loan programmes, and deferment of loan repayments. Some 165,000 jobs were saved via the Jobs Support Scheme, which paid a portion of workers’ salaries.

5. Supporting the vulnerable

Temporary assistance schemes were started such as the Temporary Relief Fund, COVID-19 Support Grant, and Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme. Moves were taken to protect the vulnerable elderly residents in nursing homes against the virus.

6. Kept education going

During the Circuit Breaker period, all schools went to home-based learning. After that critical period, home-based learning remained a feature of curriculum time.

7. Maintained effective communication

Information was made through channels like the regular press conferences and a dedicated Gov.sg Whatsapp channel. The government also stepped up efforts to counter misinformation, scams and foreign influence operations.

8. Rallied the nation

The government called on existing partnerships with stakeholders from the public and private sectors to respond to demands and changes on the ground.

Migrant workers wearing face masks at a quarantined dormitory building in Singapore.
Migrant workers wearing face masks at a quarantined dormitory building in Singapore. (FILE PHOTO: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)


1. Outbreak in migrant worker dormitories

The Government did not move quickly enough to conduct early and better surveillance of dormitories, given their communal living conditions, or to detect and isolate infected individuals. And rather than ease movement restrictions for migrant workers after most of them had been vaccinated and boosted, the government instead acted out of an abundance of caution. This took a toll on their mental well-being.

2. Border measures

Singapore enacted progressive border closures at the start of the pandemic, and during the Delta variant wave. Instead, it should have tightened border measures more aggressively the moment there were signs of the virus spreading, even at the risk of overreaction.

3. Mask policy

At the start of the pandemic, the government said face masks were not needed, but it was subsequently made mandatory a couple of months later. The public viewed this as a U-turn, which affected public trust. The government could have been less definitive in its position on mask-wearing before it learnt how easily the virus spread.

4. Contact tracing data

The use of the TraceTogether as well as SafeEntry took several months to get into gear, as TraceTogether at first did not cover people without smartphones. The programme suffered another setback when it was disclosed in Parliament that TraceTogether data could be used in police crime investigations. This contradicted earlier assurances and caused much public unhappiness.

5. COVID-19 rules and safe management measures

Some rules and safe management measures were overly calibrated, needing to be changed frequently as the situation evolved. They became confusing and frustrating for the public.

6. Transition to endemicity

Singapore raised the idea of COVID-19 becoming endemic in May 2021, but over the second half of 2021, tightened and relaxed measures repeatedly as the Delta variant caused cases to surge. People became frustrated when they did not see the new strategy materialise. Teething issues also beset the rollout of the Home Recovery Programme, as people did not know when to recover at home and found it hard to get answers.

A notice warning people not to gather in groups larger than five to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore.
A notice warning people not to gather in groups larger than five to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore. (FILE PHOTO: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)


1. Balancing precision and ease of implementation

The government needs to better establish upfront which dimension to prioritise in each phase of dealing with the pandemic. The crisis response should strike a balance between precision and ease of implementation, should not "let the perfect be the enemy of the good".

2. Strengthen resilience as economy, society, nation

Singapore should maintain access to key resources by building buffers, invest in critical systems and capabilities to marshal resources, and enhance the adaptability of its infrastructure and workforce.

3. Deepen engagements, partnerships

The government should deepen engagements and strengthen partnerships with the people and private sectors to harness their strengths. It must develop an eco-system to support and nurture these relationships in peacetime.

4. Expand healthcare capacity

Singapore strengthen its public health expertise and organisational capabilities, especially in communicable disease control and management.

5. Be better in leverage science and technology

Singapore needs to invest in data engineering capabilities and interoperable systems across the government, in order to support future pandemic crisis management and response.

6. Strengthen crisis planning and management

The range of baseline scenarios for pandemic planning will need to be broadened.

7. Shaping national psyche

Singapore should consider how else public communications could be leveraged to shape the national psyche in support of important shifts during a crisis.

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