Covid-19 battle

We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel: PM Lee

In his televised address yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the progress Singapore has made since the first Covid-19 case was detected here, the brighter outlook offered by vaccines and what must be done to get over the final stretch. The text of his speech follows:

"Our defences against Covid-19 are much stronger now," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday. But he emphasised that "Singaporeans must keep our guard up, because the virus is most likely still circulating silently within our community". He a
"Our defences against Covid-19 are much stronger now," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday. But he emphasised that "Singaporeans must keep our guard up, because the virus is most likely still circulating silently within our community". He added that it is vital that people stay cautious and vigilant, continue to cooperate with the government, and comply with the rules and restrictions that will apply in phase three.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

My fellow Singaporeans, we are coming to a full year since our first Covid-19 case. It has been a year of uncertainty, full of ups and downs, filled with anxiety and trepidation.

But much has changed within the last few months. In March and April, we peaked at over 1,000 cases a day. Now on most days, we have zero cases of local transmissions.

When the pandemic first started, we worried if there would be enough supplies in the supermarkets. Today, supermarket shelves are full, and shopping is calm and uneventful.

Parents were worried then whether their kids should go to school. But we kept the school year intact, CCAs have resumed, and graduating students have finished exams and are waiting for their results.

We will not forget the two months of circuit breaker in April and May. But today, life is a lot more normal. We go to work, dine out, and meet friends, though in groups of no more than five.

How did we bring things under control? It took a tremendous effort, and some good luck.

Our measures were hard for everyone, but they worked. Singaporeans showed resilience and took them in their stride.

Our economy took a big hit, but we did not let it crash. Despite the global economic dislocation, most of our workers kept their jobs.

Now, our defences against Covid-19 are much stronger.

We have steadily built up our testing capacities and procedures. We introduced rostered routine testing of higher risk groups. We started using antigen rapid tests, to resume larger gatherings and events safely.

We also beefed up our contact tracing capabilities - for example, expanding our SafeEntry and TraceTogether programmes, and distributing TraceTogether tokens.

We got used to the inconvenient restrictions, and found ways to carry on with life. We looked after one another, reminding each other to adhere to safe distancing, to wear masks, to see a doctor if ill, and so on.

I am very grateful that Singaporeans have complied with the spirit, and not just the letter of the rules.

We stayed united, kept up our guard, and did not allow ourselves to become complacent over time.

With everyone's full support, our enhanced safeguards worked, and we could gradually ease our restrictions. We can be proud of how far we have come.

ROUTE TO PHASE THREE

Because of your efforts, we are now ready to progress to the next phase.

Phase three will begin in two weeks' time, on Dec 28, so we will end the year with some good news.

The ministerial task force will explain the details immediately after my broadcast.

We will ease capacity limits in public places like malls and attractions, and at places of worship.

One significant change is to allow groups of up to eight to congregate, up from the current maximum of five.

So eight people can dine out together, or visit someone's home.

This will make it easier to hold family get-togethers during the festive period.

Please understand that even as we enter phase three, the battle is far from won. The Covid-19 virus has not been eradicated. There is a long way to go.

Around the world, the pandemic is still raging. Many countries are seeing second, third, or even fourth waves of infection, with record numbers of daily cases.

International borders remain largely closed. But trade and travel are our lifeblood.

The longer our own borders stay closed to travellers, the greater the risk of us permanently losing out as an international hub, and consequently hurting our livelihoods.

Therefore, our only option is to reopen our borders in a controlled and safe manner.

As we do so, we will see more imported cases. And there will be some risk of these imported cases spreading to the community.

We have already had a few cases recently: An airport staff, who likely came into contact with infected passengers. A marine worker, who picked up the virus after boarding ships to do repair and resupply work.

This is a calculated risk we have to accept. But the Government will take every precaution, and do our best to prevent imported cases from triggering a new outbreak.

At the same time, Singaporeans must keep our guard up, because the virus is most likely still circulating silently within our community.

Each of us needs to play our part.

By all means make use of the higher limits and reconnect with friends and family. But please do not abandon your mindset of watchfulness and caution.

This is absolutely not the time to relax, and let our guard down. Or to hold a big party, imagining that the problem has disappeared.

Progressing from phase two to phase three is a calibrated, careful move. We are easing the restrictions in a controlled way, so that we can keep the Covid-19 situation stable, and take more steps forward later.

It is vital that you stay cautious and vigilant, continue to cooperate with the Government, and comply with the rules and restrictions that will apply in phase three.

UPDATE ON VACCINATIONS

How long will we have to keep this up for? It may be for quite a while, possibly a year or more. One key factor is how soon Covid-19 vaccines become available to us.

The Government has been working quietly behind the scenes, since early in the pandemic, to secure access to vaccines.

This was not a simple exercise. More than 200 vaccine candidates were being developed, and not all would succeed.

We started talking to the pharmaceutical companies early to understand the science, and identify the promising candidate vaccines likely to reach production soon.

We set aside more than US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion). We placed multiple bets, to sign advance purchase agreements and make early down payments for the most promising candidates, including with Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Sinovac.

We made arrangements with pharmaceutical companies to facilitate their clinical trials and drug development in Singapore, and attracted a few to establish vaccine manufacturing capabilities here.

We also supported local efforts to develop a vaccine. This gave our own scientists and researchers the opportunity to do cutting edge work. It was also insurance, in case the global supply chain was disrupted.

This way, we built up a diversified portfolio of options, to ensure that Singapore would be near the front of the queue for vaccines, and not last in line.

Securing early access to vaccines was a whole-of-government effort.

Many agencies and public officers, led by the head of the Civil Service, were involved in this critical mission.

I commend them for their good work. They are among the legion of unsung heroes who have helped us get through this crisis.

As you would have read in the news, the first vaccines are now coming into production.

I am very happy to tell you that after studying the scientific evidence and clinical trial data, the Health Sciences Authority has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for pandemic use.

The first shipment should arrive by the end of this month, making Singapore one of the first countries to obtain this vaccine.

We also expect other vaccines to arrive in Singapore in the coming months. If all goes according to plan, we will have enough vaccines for everyone in Singapore by third quarter 2021.

MOH has set up a committee of doctors and experts to recommend a vaccination strategy for us. The committee has proposed that our entire adult population should be vaccinated, but to make vaccinations voluntary.

First priority will be given to those who are at greatest risk: healthcare workers and front-line personnel, as well as the elderly and vulnerable.

Thereafter, the committee proposes to progressively vaccinate the rest of the population, and to cover everyone who wants a vaccination by the end of next year.

The Government has accepted these recommendations.

I have personal confidence in our experts. My Cabinet colleagues and I, including the older ones, will be getting ourselves vaccinated early. This is to show you, especially seniors like me, that we believe the vaccines are safe.

We have decided to make vaccinations free for all Singaporeans, and for all long-term residents who are currently here.

So I strongly encourage you to get vaccinated too, when the vaccine is offered to you.

Because when you get yourself vaccinated, you are not just protecting yourself, you are also doing your part to protect others, especially your loved ones.

The more of us are vaccinated, the harder it will be for the virus to spread, and the safer we will all be as a society.

Vaccines will support our recovery in more ways than one.

As a global aviation hub, we play a crucial role transporting vaccines around the world. Vaccines require cold chain management. An ordinary refrigerator is not good enough: The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 deg C, colder than the Arctic in winter!

This requires infrastructure, high standards, skilled personnel, and good connectivity to many different countries all along the supply chain.

Fortunately, Singapore has a strong ecosystem for cargo handling. Leading global logistics companies like DHL, UPS and FedEx are based here. SIA, and Changi Airport's ground handling partners are certified by Iata (the International Air Transport Association) to handle and transport pharmaceutical supplies.

We are now gearing ourselves up to handle large volumes of vaccine shipments into and through Singapore, to help win the global fight against Covid-19.

We did not get here overnight. We have always planned ahead, systematically creating opportunities for ourselves.

It took us years of investment and planning, building a business friendly climate and expanding our air links around the world. These long-term investments are now paying dividends.

CONCLUSION

During this immediate crisis, we have reacted quickly and comprehensively, marshalled resources to solve our problems, and stayed resilient.

Our situation is now stable, but only because everyone has worked so hard, and sacrificed so much. Now that vaccines are becoming available, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

As vaccinations become widespread not only in Singapore, but also in our region and the world, we can look forward to resuming more normal lives.

Let us keep up our efforts in this final stretch, to cross the finish line together, and complete our mission to defeat Covid-19.

Thank you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2020, with the headline 'We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel: PM Lee'. Subscribe