Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah yesterday accused the People's Action Party of twisting his words, saying the way they have been spun was "just so bizarre".
"They're not willing to tackle us on the issues," he said, pointing to SDP proposals like a retrenchment insurance. "These are real issues we could deal with if they wanted to, instead of inventing things that we've said and then try and claim that these are falsehoods."
Two statements are at the centre of the current dispute.
Earlier yesterday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 task force with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, said Professor Tambyah had claimed the task force was not relying on the advice of medical experts, and that the Manpower Ministry (MOM) issued an advisory to employers against the advice of medical experts. Mr Wong had described these statements as "baseless and false".
Prof Tambyah denied making the first statement and said he had been misrepresented on the second. "That is something I never said," he replied, when asked about whether he claimed the task force did not rely on medical experts.
On the second statement, he said: "I did say that MOM issued the statement... It's just the way that it gets spun is just, it's just so bizarre.
"Let me tell you what I actually said. I said that MOM issued an advisory saying that if workers who are pre-symptomatic were sent for testing, that the employers would lose their workforce privileges, and that is a violation of public health 101."
The dispute appears to have arisen from remarks made during an interview with The Online Citizen, published on Saturday.
During the interview, Prof Tambyah praised the early response to the pandemic, but said: "The one thing that concerned me in January and February was that the ministerial committee was taking the front and centre of the role. And this was different from Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome). In Sars, there was a ministerial committee, but the ministerial committee was in the background. And you had the scientists and public health people in the front."
He added it was understandable politicians would want the limelight when things were going smoothly. "But when things started going south, you really needed the experts to come in and to be able to overrule the ministerial committee."
He then pointed to an advisory issued by MOM, telling employers not to drop off healthy workers at hospitals for testing, as a turning point.
He said employers had started getting nervous after the first cases among foreign workers emerged.
"They said hey, I've got a bunch of workers living in my dormitory. Shall I send them for testing? And then the Ministry of Manpower threatened the employers and said, if you send your workers for testing with no good reason, or without a doctor getting some kind of authorisation, then you will be penalised."
The MOM advisory on Feb 19 said employers should send workers who are unwell to general practitioners who will make an assessment on whether the worker needs to be sent to hospital. It said employers who act irresponsibly may have their work pass privileges suspended.
Yesterday, Prof Tambyah said that while he has no doubt that MOM had got input from its own doctors or the Ministry of Health (MOH), ultimately, the responsibility lies with MOM as "the circular was issued by MOM, the threat to withdraw work passes can only be enforced by MOM".
Referring to Mr Wong's remarks saying that MOM put out the advisory at the request of doctors and experts, he said: "I think MOM trying to shirk their responsibility on this is really not a good sign."
Prof Tambyah also said the PAP accusing him of politicising the crisis and using it to gain political points is "silly".
He said: "We're just pointing out a fact: MOM issued an advisory, which was mistaken because it goes against the principles of public health. And I don't think that MOH or any of the doctors would have wanted that outcome.
"So basically, the idea is in public health, you want to test as many people as you can and you don't want to discourage people from testing. And the last thing you want to do is you want to threaten people who send pre-symptomatic individuals for testing.
"I'm sure they consulted their own doctors, but ultimately the decision was not a medical decision."
In a separate statement, Prof Tambyah thanked Mr Wong for not campaigning in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, which is being contested by an SDP team: "I would like to thank Minister Lawrence Wong for his reassurance that he is not going to campaign in Marsiling-Yew Tee but rather, concentrate on the rising number of unlinked and local community cases of Covid-19 outside the dormitories, as well as the potential environmental cluster in Tampines."
The statement appeared to refer to a question during Mr Wong's press conference on how much time he spent on the ground.
Mr Wong had replied that while the work of the task force continues, "whatever spare time on top of that work, that's where I come to the ground to meet my residents".