The road ahead as Singapore adapts to living with Covid-19

This is the transcript of a national broadcast by National Development Minister and Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on what Singapore needs to do as it eases into the new normal of a world changed by Covid-19. The broadcast is the second in a series of six by ministers scheduled for June 7 to June 20. The next broadcast is on June 11 by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.

My fellow Singaporeans ...

Covid-19 is the most serious health crisis the world has faced in a century.

We have all seen the devastating effects of the virus worldwide. When the outbreak gets out of control, the spike in cases can quickly overwhelm the healthcare system. Many people will not get the care they need, and the number of deaths will rise sharply.

We are determined to avoid the same fate in Singapore. That's why we've been going all out to control the spread of the virus, and to ensure that our healthcare system is able to care for all who are infected.

It has been a tough fight against a formidable and invisible enemy. We've had our share of challenges. But we faced them head-on.

Working together, we've stabilised the situation in the migrant worker dormitories. We've brought down community cases significantly. We've protected our seniors, and kept our fatality rates low. I thank everyone for your hard work and sacrifices in keeping our fellow citizens safe.

Most of all, I'd like to acknowledge all our officers serving on the front line, including our healthcare professionals and volunteers. I'm speaking today at the NCID, the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, which has been at the forefront of this battle. You have all been working flat out, making sacrifices and exceeding the call of duty. So to all of you, I want to say a big Thank You.

The strict measures and restrictions we've imposed over the recent months have been effective. But they come at a high price. We're cushioning the impact on our businesses and workers with four Budget packages this year. But we cannot remain closed indefinitely as we have to prioritise both lives and livelihoods.

That's why we've embarked on a phased approach to reopen safely.

But please understand: we are not going back to life before the circuit breaker. The vast majority of our population have not been exposed to the virus and are still vulnerable to the disease. We want to continue to provide maximum protection for our seniors and those with medical conditions. Hence we have been very cautious in our reopening.

We are now in Phase 1 and we will continue to monitor the situation over the coming week.

If the conditions remain stable, we will be able to move into Phase 2 before the end of the month.

The key to progressive easing

We will then resume a broader range of activities, covering nearly the whole economy, and allow social interactions and family visits in small groups of not more than five people.

Externally, we are carefully easing travel restrictions and reopening our borders, by creating "green lanes" with selected countries. These arrangements will be limited to essential travel for work reasons, and tight controls will be put in place.

"It has been a tough fight against a formidable and invisible enemy. We've had our share of challenges. But we faced them head-on," said National Development Minister and Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in a national broadcast yesterday. "In these difficult times, we have not despaired. We have not given up," he added. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

When conditions permit, we will extend "green lanes" to more countries, and to non-business travellers.

But it will take a while before we see international air travel recovering in a significant way, or before we can open up for mass market travel.

As we resume more activities, there will be more human contact and more opportunities for the virus to spread. So we must be mentally prepared to see more new cases. This has happened in many other places which exited from their lockdowns, and we must expect it to happen here too.

The key is whether we are able to keep community infection rates stable. If so, we can continue on the path of progressive easing.

But if the number of cases rise sharply, we will have to slow down the opening up, and even tighten certain restrictions.

Our ability to control the infection during this process of reopening is therefore critical. And that's why we've made use of the two months of circuit breaker to do two things.

Ramped up tracing and testing

First, we've increased our capacity and speed of contact tracing by developing new systems.

We have expanded our contact tracing teams, which now include personnel from the police and the Singapore Armed Forces. We are also using technology to speed up contact tracing. We have implemented the SafeEntry digital check-in/check-out system, and the TraceTogether app on smartphones.

With these enhancements, we can now identify close contacts faster, isolate them, and prevent large clusters from forming.

Beyond TraceTogether and SafeEntry, we are currently developing wearable Bluetooth devices. These will work on their own without the need for a phone. You can conveniently wear or carry them around, as you go about your daily activities. I seek everyone's understanding and cooperation. Please use these important tools - they will help us slow down the spread of the virus and save lives.

Second, we've expanded our testing capacity hugely. We are procuring more test-kits, building more laboratory capacity, and recruiting and training more laboratory technicians as well as personnel to carry out swabs and take blood samples.

In early April, we were doing about 2,000 tests a day. Now, we are able to conduct about 13,000 tests a day, and we are on track to reach 40,000 tests a day in the coming months.

This expanded testing capacity is critical. It means that we can test higher-risk groups more extensively. We can also do more surveillance testing in the community, including those with respiratory symptoms. This will give us a faster and more accurate sense of the number of cases circulating undetected.

Besides the standard testing methods, we are deploying other means of detection.

For example, we are extracting waste water from manholes to test for viral fragments. This provides an additional indicator to tell us if a specific group, such as those living in a dormitory, has infected people among them.

We are also using serology tests - these help to identify those who were previously infected but may have since recovered, and have developed antibodies in response that can help them fight the virus.

Aggressive testing and contact tracing will improve our ability to control the spread of the virus. They will help greatly in allowing business and life to resume progressively.

Vaccine development

In the longer term, an important part of the solution is a vaccine. The good news is that there is a massive global effort to develop a vaccine. And Singapore is working on this too. We have a pharmaceutical industry, and research capabilities in biomedical science.

The Economic Development Board is also discussing with pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines in Singapore. If and when a vaccine becomes available, we will make sure that every Singaporean who needs it gets it, and at an affordable price.

In parallel, clinicians and researchers around the world, including teams from Singapore, are working hard to develop drugs and other therapies to reduce the severity of the disease.

But drug and vaccine development is very challenging work. There is no guarantee that the drugs currently undergoing clinical trials will be effective. And despite the intensive international efforts, it will take a long time for any vaccine to be ready and available for mass distribution. So we have to be realistic and gird ourselves for more challenging times.

It is not likely that the virus will go away. Our population will be vulnerable for a long time, in a world where Covid-19 is all around us.

We must therefore adapt to Covid-19, and learn to live with it over the long term.

This does not depend upon government actions alone. Every one of us - Government, businesses and individuals - must do our part.

What's critical is people's behaviour and mindsets. We must stay disciplined and vigilant, and not let our guard down. We must practise social responsibility in upholding good personal hygiene and safe distancing measures - wash our hands regularly, wear a mask wherever we go, avoid big gatherings and crowded places, and see a doctor immediately when we are sick.

We've been emphasising all this for some time. But it bears repeating because, individually, these are steps everyone can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

And collectively, these actions will make all the difference in keeping Covid-19 at bay. They will enable us to have a safe and sustainable reopening, as we have seen in countries like Denmark and New Zealand.

Conversely, if we are lax in our personal precautions, new cases and new clusters will multiply quickly, and despite our best efforts to test and trace, we might end up in another circuit breaker down the road.

So please cooperate with the restrictions, and keep everyone safe.

Work and other changes

We also have to change the way we live and work. Covid-19 has precipitated a shift towards more flexible work arrangements. Working from home, staggered work hours and split team arrangements are becoming more of the norm.

Our urban plans will need to cater to these new demands. Office and building designs will also have to change, given what we now know about the risks of transmission in enclosed spaces.

We will need to improve ventilation and air filtering inside buildings. Other features like contactless fittings, automatic doors, as well as hand sanitiser and temperature monitoring stations, should also become part of the norm.

Companies will have to find new and safer ways to deliver their products and services.

Many are already embracing digital solutions. Some will need to change their business practices to adapt to the new environment.

And I am happy that wet market stallholders and hawkers are now using digital payments more, and online platforms to reach new customers.

The construction sector

One major impact is on our construction sector.

Construction has been a key vulnerability in this pandemic. The industry will need to institute new safeguards at worksites, and continue its push for automation and productivity, in order to reduce its reliance on migrant workers.

Workers in construction - local and foreign - will have to be tested regularly and comprehensively.

We will also need to review and improve living arrangements for migrant workers.The present dormitories are in fact the outcome of improvements made over the past decade. But despite this, and the precautions we took, we still had major outbreaks in the dormitories.

We will tighten the safeguards and build new dormitories designed to be more resilient against infection risks.

But we have to be mindful that the risks will always be there, because of the large number of workers living together and sharing communal facilities. In fact, all communal living spaces, be they dormitories, nursing homes or cruise ships, will always be at risk in the event of an infectious disease outbreak.

These are significant changes, which will mean extra costs for the construction industry.

For now, the Government is bearing these costs through the Fortitude Budget. Beyond that, we will introduce other measures to cushion the impact, and to move the industry to new productivity levels.

I have no doubt that this will be a very difficult transition. But I assure everyone in the industry that we will work closely with you to get through this difficult patch, and to emerge stronger from this experience.

Ultimately, reopening our economy and society does not mean going back to the status quo ante. I know many are looking forward to resume your favourite activities or to get back to your usual routines. But this is not the time for big celebrations or parties. We will all need to adjust our expectations, lifestyles and norms.

The Singapore spirit

We have shown our grit, adaptability and resilience during the circuit breaker, and we must continue to demonstrate the same ingenuity and resourcefulness in this new phase.

For example, we have found new and creative ways to stay in touch with family and friends - chatting and exercising online, and even having virtual meals or drinks together.

We may not be able to travel or have large gatherings anytime soon. But we are going on virtual tours, enjoying online concerts, and learning new skills through online classes. And many of us continue to draw strength from our faiths, thanks to churches, mosques and temples livestreaming their sermons and services to their followers.

In these difficult times, we have not despaired. We have not given up.

Instead, adversity has brought out the best in us - both individually and collectively. We have found strength and confidence in one another. We have shown that we are capable of rising above ourselves and caring for others.

Every day, we see countless examples of Singaporeans from all walks of life going out of their comfort zones and going the extra mile - they are volunteering at the dormitories, distributing food to the elderly, and looking out for the vulnerable among us.

Businesses too have been leaning forward to help - they are donating masks and supplies to those in need; and contributing to our front-line Covid-19 operations.

This is the Singapore spirit that gives us the confidence to press ahead, no matter how tough the odds. The road ahead is unpredictable, and countries everywhere are continuing to search for answers and solutions.

There is no guaranteed formula for success. But it is our grit and resilience, our compassion and kindness, our cohesion and strength that will see us through this crisis of our generation.

So let us continue to stand together, unshaken in spirit and resolve. Whatever the challenges ahead, let us face them together.

As one united people, we will defeat Covid-19 and we will prevail.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2020, with the headline The road ahead as Singapore adapts to living with Covid-19. Subscribe