Parliament: Social, economic costs carefully weighed before extending Covid-19 circuit breaker, says Lawrence Wong

Key circuit breaker measures will largely remain till June 1, 2020.
Key circuit breaker measures will largely remain till June 1, 2020.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Keeping everyone at home to stem the transmission of Covid-19 has substantial social and economic costs, and is likely to disproportionately impact lower-income and vulnerable groups, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

"They are also less likely to be able to telecommute for work, and so staying home for this group will clearly affect their incomes and livelihoods. Being isolated at home for long periods is also not good for their health and overall well-being," he noted.

That is why the Government considered very carefully before implementing the circuit breaker and later extending it for another month till June 1, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday (May 4).

While it was a difficult decision to implement and extend the circuit breaker as businesses and workers were already hurting, he said the Government decided to do so to break the transmission chain, and slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

From May 12, some gradual easing of the measures will be allowed, like allowing barbers and hairdressers to reopen.

But the key circuit breaker measures will largely remain till June 1, said the minister, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force handling Covid-19.

"I must strongly caution that the easing of some measures in the coming weeks cannot be taken as a signal that we can now take it easy and start to go out more," he said, reiterating that the fight against Covid-19 is far from over.

"The virus can flare up again any time. We cannot afford to slacken. But we must stay vigilant, maintain our discipline, continue to stay home and minimise our contacts with others."  

CONTINUAL ADJUSTMENTS IN THE FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19

Singaporeans should also expect more challenges in the fight against Covid-19, which may require further adjustments in the measures and precautions taken, the minister said.

The Government will also have to quickly adjust risk assessments and measures as it learns more about how the virus is transmitted.

He acknowledged that it can be difficult to keep up with all the changes.

 
 
 

"I hope everyone appreciates and understands that we are responding to a dynamic and fast-changing situation. In every case, we will carefully consider the latest scientific evidence and medical advice, and the impact on our people before making a change."

For example, at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, many new travel restrictions had to be implemented and adjusted quickly as the Government tracked how the virus was spreading from country to country.

And in coming up with the specific measures for the community, Singapore, too, had to adapt and adjust as it learnt more about the virus, said Mr Wong, noting that this is also happening around the world.

"We are dealing with a new virus, and scientists everywhere are discovering more about the virus – even today – and the disease it causes," he said.

This was why the Government updated its guidance on masks as it learnt more about the virus, and made it a requirement for everyone to wear masks when they go out.

RESUMING ACTIVITIES AFTER THE CIRCUIT BREAKER

After the circuit breaker ends, all firms will need to change their work culture and practices, and life cannot return to status quo ante, he said.

Reopening of workplaces will be done in a calibrated manner, starting with industries that are critical to the economy and to local employment, and which keep Singapore connected to the world and global supply chains.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) are engaging industry associations, business chambers and firms to help them adapt to these new realities, the minister said.

For instance, telecommuting will have to be a default option extended to all staff.

 
 
 

Strict safe management practices will have to be implemented for those who cannot do so, he said, such as split-team arrangements with no cross-deployment of staff, staggered working and lunch break hours, and higher hygiene standards.

Within the workplace, there should not be any gathering of staff in groups at any time, be it in the pantry or staff canteen, he said, adding that all of these safeguards must be in place before more workplaces can reopen.

Highlighting the construction industry, he said the Government will have to work with companies to "fundamentally change" the way construction activities are conducted.

While Singapore has made some progress in construction productivity, there are still 270,000 migrant workers in the sector, he noted.

"A construction worksite typically will have hundreds of workers coming from multiple dormitories. One single infected worker, mild or asymptomatic, can spread the virus to their co-workers at the worksite. They in turn can bring the infection back to where they live, and also to places they gather with their friends. When that happens, large clusters can quickly and easily form, as has happened...

"We will need a whole range of measures covering the worksites, the accommodation and transport of workers, as well as additional precautions taken by the workers themselves," he said.

ON DINING IN, RESUMING RELIGIOUS SERVICES

He said some sectors, such as entertainment outlets or activities that attract crowds or people in close contact with one another, will have to wait a longer time before they can reopen.

The risks of dining in at food and beverage outlets will also have to be assessed carefully before such activities can resume, he added.

Religious gatherings and services may also take some time to resume.

 
 
 

The minister noted that all communities have experienced or will be experiencing their religious observances and holidays with major adjustments, including Qing Ming and Easter in April, and soon Vesak Day and Hari Raya in May.

"We know it's not been easy and we really appreciate everyone's understanding of the adjustments that have to be  made to keep ourselves and our families safe during this period."

He said the Government will also harness technology for faster contact tracing when the measures are eased, on top of ramping up testing efforts.

Two technological platforms have been developed for contact tracing - the national digital check-in system SafeEntry, and TraceTogether, which logs smartphone users' interactions by exchanging Bluetooth radio signals between nearby phones.

The Government is developing solutions for the elderly and the young who do not have smartphones, he said. 

"When the work is ready, we will announce more details," he said.