SINGAPORE - Singapore has set up multiple lines of defence to reduce the risk of imported cases and local community transmission of the coronavirus, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament on Monday (Feb 3).
"We have been stepping up our posture and efforts at each line of defence," he said in a ministerial statement.
But he also sounded the alert that there could be a long road ahead in the fight against the virus, which was first reported in late December in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in China, and has now affected more than 17,000 people globally and killed over 360.
He noted that with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), it took around eight months from the first detected case in November 2002 till the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak contained in July 2003.
"We are not sure how this virus will turn out. Therefore, we must stand ready to respond to new developments as the situation evolves," he said.
Singapore is preparing for various contingencies, said Mr Gan, who outlined three scenarios.
First, there could be community spread in more Chinese cities beyond Wuhan or in other countries.
"We may need to roll out additional measures to prevent importation and to contain the virus," he said.
"The decision to do so would again not be an easy one. We have to do what is necessary to protect the health and safety of our people and those who travel to Singapore."
Second, there could be community spread locally.
"Despite our efforts, this is a possibility we must be ready for," he said.
The key to managing this is quick detection and limiting further spread, which calls on social responsibility from all individuals.
"If the infected Singaporean wears a mask to protect others, and promptly sees a doctor and gets triaged for testing, the risk of further spread could be greatly reduced," said Mr Gan.
Even if there is spread, quick action will help to limit its extent. Once the person is tested positive, the Government can also contact-trace quickly, helping to reduce further spread to their close contacts.
"If the community spread becomes very extensive, we will need to consider measures to reduce human-to-human interactions, such as cancelling mass gatherings, suspending schools, paring down non-essential care services and introducing further infection control and monitoring measures, to slow the spread."
Third, the virus could mutate to become more infectious and spread widely, resulting in a pandemic.
"This is the known unknown, and we have to assess what best to do, depending on how the virus mutates. For example, it may also become less infectious or less severe," he told Parliament.
He said that on the healthcare front, Singapore is stepping up preparations for these potential scenarios.
For example, the capacity of isolation beds was increased by around 100 in the past two weeks.
Singapore has also been increasing its testing capacity to more quickly confirm suspect cases.
"Overall, we must stay calm, but cautious. Our early intervention efforts have helped to contain the spread so far, but while we hope for the best, we must plan for the worst."
In a 30-minute speech where he outlined how the Government has been responding to the outbreak, he also appealed to all Singaporeans to work together with the Government in this fight.
He said he was very heartened by the many examples of volunteers stepping forward to support efforts.
"This effort requires a whole-of-Singapore response," he said. "We seek Singaporeans' understanding and cooperation."
He also paid tribute to healthcare workers on the front lines, and commended them for their bravery and selflessness.
He said the Government understands that Singaporeans may feel anxious, given the many unknowns about the novel coronavirus.
"I want to reiterate the Government's firm commitment that we will spare no efforts in protecting our people.
"We will act swiftly and share information on the novel coronavirus openly and as soon as possible."