International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali yesterday waved away calls for a total lockdown in Malaysia despite an unrelenting coronavirus outbreak, mooting instead more stringent procedures such as targeted testing and tighter distancing protocols.
This comes after manufacturing trade associations over the weekend called on members to step up measures to reduce infections - the sector is responsible for nearly a third of more than 300 active clusters - to avoid a shutdown of the economy as the current wave of Covid-19 has worsened, despite Malaysia reimposing a movement control order (MCO) on Jan 13.
But Datuk Seri Azmin, who is also Senior Minister for Economy, argued that "the overarching priority" is "to strike a balance between protecting lives and livelihoods", noting the "worst-ever decline (of gross domestic product) in our history", following a 17.1 per cent contraction in the second quarter of last year, after the MCO was first introduced. Relaxed curbs saw a third-quarter drop of 2.7 per cent.
"It is important to note that apart from the toll on health and the economy, Covid-19 has a direct impact on the people. One loss in income affects the whole household. In practical terms, the loss of income for one breadwinner may well adversely affect the livelihoods of at least four persons in a family," he said in a statement.
The current MCO allows for sectors such as manufacturing, construction and various services to continue under government-mandated standard operating procedures, unlike curbs in March that restricted most people to home as schools and nearly all firms closed.
While last year's "MCO 1.0" succeeded in reducing daily infections to single digits, this year's version has seen four-digit numbers rise to a new high of 4,275 patients last Saturday, while a record 18 lives were lost to the disease last Friday.
Calls to reinstate closures of non-essential economic activities have grown in recent days. The Straits Times reported the Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) briefed manufacturing stakeholders last Friday that the Health Ministry was mooting a total lockdown, if no improvements were shown during MCO 2.0, set to end on Feb 4.
However, health chief Noor Hisham Abdullah was optimistic as yesterday's 3,048 new cases was the lowest in the past 10 days, saying in a virtual press conference that "we do not want to prolong the MCO".
Several industry and government sources said suggestions such as creating quarantine spaces in workers' dormitories and halving the number of workers in transport vehicles were mooted during the brainstorming session with Miti.
The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers confirmed these and other proposals in a statement yesterday, adding the government should also subsidise the cost and regulate the availability of rapid test kits (RTK) to accommodate the mass testing of workers.
"A second full lockdown will lead to irreparable damage to the business sector and economy with devastating impact on business survival and job security," said its president Soh Thian Lai.
Mr Azmin concurred with the measures to help widen RTK testing. He also suggested the government "consider tightening the SOP to prevent outbreaks at ignition sites and introduce clear guidance" on the density of people in indoor settings.