Tighter SOPs, not lockdown, answer to Malaysia's Covid-19 spike, says Azmin Ali

A police officer and a soldier stand guard at a roadblock to enforce lockdown, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, on Jan 13, 2021.
A police officer and a soldier stand guard at a roadblock to enforce lockdown, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, on Jan 13, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - International Trade and Industry Minister Azmin Ali waved away on Monday (Jan 25) 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 over 300 active clusters - to avoid a shutdown of the economy as the current wave of the deadly virus has worsened despite Malaysia reimposing a movement control order (MCO) since Jan 13.

But Datuk Seri Azmin, who is also coordinating senior minister for the economy, argued "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" after the 17.1 per cent contraction in the second quarter of last year after the MCO was first introduced. Relaxed restrictions 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 various sectors such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture and various services to continue under government-mandated standard operating procedures (SOPs), unlike the restrictions put in place in March last year, which shut most people at home as schools and nearly all businesses closed.

While the "MCO 1.0" last year succeeded in reducing daily infections to single digits, this year's version has seen four-digit numbers increase to a new high of 4,275 patients last Saturday and 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 that Mr Azmin's Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) told manufacturing stakeholders last Friday that the Health Ministry was mooting a total lockdown if no improvements were shown during the current MCO 2.0 that is scheduled to expire on Feb 4.

However, health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah was optimistic as Monday's 3,048 new cases was the lowest number in the past 10 days, and he said 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, halving the number of workers in transport vehicles and taking full responsibility of workers' activities even if housing was outsourced were mooted during the brainstorming session with Miti.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers confirmed these and other proposals in a statement on Monday, adding that the government should also step in to subsidise the cost and regulate the availability of rapid test kits (RTK) to accommodate 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, Mr Soh Thian Lai.

Mr Azmin concurred with the measures to help widen RTK testing, suggesting additionally that the government "consider tightening the SOP to prevent outbreaks at ignition sites and introducing clear guidance" on the density of people in indoor settings.